British join Iraqis in Basra firefight
THE British Army yesterday fired artillery shells at Shi'ite militias in Basra for the first time since the Iraqi government launched a fresh offensive in the city six days ago.
The Ministry of Defence denied the move represented an escalation in the battle for Iraq's second city, but it will throw further doubt on plans to bring home 1,600 British troops this spring.
Major Tom Holloway, the British Army spokesman in Basra, said the artillery barrage on a mortar position in the al-Klalaf area of northern Basra was in response to a request from Iraqi ground forces.
British aircraft have conducted surveillance and precision-guided strikes but they had not previously been used to attack militia on the ground. On this occasion they were used as a warning to fighters on the ground.
Holloway said the Iraqi action against militiamen in the Basra area was a "complicated operation". He said: "I think we need to be prepared for this to run for a while."
Holloway said that while British troop levels were "constantly under review", it was up to military commanders and ministers to make decisions about future deployments.
Earlier, Defence Secretary Des Browne said British forces were "ready to respond" if the Iraqi forces wanted them to return to the frontline.
Browne said UK forces were providing the Iraqi government with medical care, logistics and air support in their battle against Shi'ite militias. He said the 4,100 heavily-armed troops based at Basra airport would only be redeployed at the request of the Iraqi security forces and with the approval of British commanders. "What we are seeing in Basra now is a deliberate Iraqi operation, mounted by Iraqi forces at the behest of the Iraqi Prime Minister. This operation is difficult and complex but its purpose – to disarm the extremist militias in Basra – is right and we support it.
"That it is happening at all is due to the first-rate training provided to the Iraqi security forces in southern Iraq over a number of years by UK and other coalition soldiers."
He added: "We are monitoring the situation closely and are ready to respond as appropriate. If the Iraqis ask for additional support, any decision to commit further UK forces will be taken by military commanders in Iraq who are best placed to make those judgements."
Security in the southern city of Basra has steadily deteriorated – more than 130 people have been killed and 350 injured – since Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched an offensive against followers of the radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on Tuesday.
Al-Maliki said yesterday that he would not leave Basra until security had been restored. Al-Sadr made his views equally clear when he appealed, in an interview with al-Jazeera television, for Arab leaders to voice their support for their "resistance" against the "foreign occupation" of Iraq.
There have been intense street battles as Iraqi government forces struggle to contain the militants in Basra, the headquarters of the country's oil industry.
US jets yesterday widened the bombing of Basra when they dropped two precision-guided bombs on a suspected militia stronghold north of the city. Iraqi police said that earlier in the day a US warplane strafed a house and killed eight civilians, including two women and a child.
Some defence insiders concede that Prime Minister Gordon Brown is now unlikely to be able to keep to his commitment, made in a statement to the House of Commons in October, to cut British troop numbers to 2,500 from this spring.
The Ministry of Defence's official line is that the commitment still stands, although troop numbers are kept under constant review.
"It is still our intention to draw down troop levels but that is, of course, dictated by military conditions," said a spokesman.
US President George Bush has called the Iraqi government offensive "a defining moment in the history of a free Iraq".
Brown will go to Washington next month to talk to Bush about Iraq and a range of other security issues.
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