British hit by 'Holy War' as Basra erupts
• British troops targeted in 'holy war'
• Arrest of four men catalyst for threats
• Clashes continue elsewhere in Iraq
Story in full A VIOLENT new uprising threatened to undermine the new Iraqi regime’s attempts to rebuild the shattered country yesterday, after Shiite militants declared a "Holy War" on British troops.
Forces loyal to the outlawed cleric Muqtada al-Sadr issued a defiant warning, threatening to unleash "1,000 fighters" against British forces in the southern city of Basra as fighting spread across Shiite strongholds.
Sadr loyalists shot down a United States helicopter during fighting in the cleric’s home town of Najaf. Militants also clashed with coalition forces in Sadr City and Amarah in the worst fighting the country has seen since a rebellion by Sadr’s followers in April and May.
At least two militants were killed and three wounded in the fighting in Basra yesterday.
The city, which has been patrolled by the British Army since the invasion of Iraq, had been tense since the arrest two days earlier of four Sadr men. A spokesman for Sadr’s al-Mahdi army had threatened to attack British forces if the men were not released by noon yesterday.
Sheikh Assad al-Basri said the militant group had "prepared 1,000 fighters in Basra to confront the British forces who failed to respond to our demands".
A British Army spokesman, Major Ian Clooney, dismissed the threat as "only rhetoric" and said the four men had been held for questioning.
But fighting broke out after a British patrol was ambushed and returned fire in a running battle lasting 15 minutes.
"Coalition forces were attacked with small-arms fire and returned fire, killing two enemy fighters," said a British Army spokeswoman, adding that no British forces were wounded.
While the Cheshire Regiment is the British unit currently assigned to police Basra, the Ministry of Defence declined to confirm last night that soldiers from it had been involved in the engagement.
Instead, a spokesman said the clash could have involved "units attached to the Cheshires", and refused to go into more detail.
The clashes were the worst flare-up in fighting between authorities and Sadr’s forces since a series of truces two months ago ended weeks of violence. Each side blamed the other for violating the truces.
"The ceasefire is over because of the actions of the occupation forces, and the situation has started to deteriorate," said Sheikh Abdul Hadi al-Daraji, a Sadr spokesman in Baghdad.
But in a move seemingly to ease tensions last night, Ahmed al-Shaibany, Sadr’s spokesman in Najaf, said the radical cleric had called for a truce while warning "the revolution will continue" if US forces did not agree to a ceasefire.
Tension has been rising in recent days between Sadr’s militia and Iraqi and US forces.
On Monday, US marines in Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, clashed with the militants in fighting that killed an Iraqi woman. The marines said that they had been fired upon and responded. Sadr’s aides said the marines had surrounded the cleric’s house.
Police in Najaf have also accused Sadr’s militia of kidnapping 18 police officers there in hopes of forcing the release of recently detained militants.
Early yesterday, the al-Mahdi army attacked a police station in Najaf with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire. US marines intervened "to help the policemen protect the police stations and the city", Najaf’s governor, Adnan al-Zurufi, told the al-Jazeera television station.
During the battle, a UH-1 helicopter was hit and crashed, the US said. The crew was hurt but evacuated safely.
Busloads of al-Mahdi militants were seen entering the city, residents said.
Mr Zurufi warned of "very bad consequences" if the militiamen did not disarm and leave the holy city.
The fighting killed seven militants and wounded 22, all of whom have been detained, the US military said.
Seven civilians were killed and 32 injured, including four policemen, a hospital official said.
Insurgents also attacked a US military convoy near Najaf yesterday with gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades, killing one US soldier and wounding five, the US military said.
Elsewhere, it was announced by the Ministry of Defence that a British soldier had died in an accident in Amarah.
Christopher Gordon Rayment, 22, serving with 1st Battalion The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, died on Wednesday in "a tragic accident". The incident brought the British military’s death toll since the start of the Iraq war to 61.
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