CHEERING crowds punching the air as columns of smoke billowed upwards yesterday symbolised another grim turn in the relationship between British forces and Iraqis after three years of occupation.
Minutes earlier, a British helicopter had exploded in a fireball after being shot out of the sky above Basra. Iraqi fire-fighting crews rushed to the scene and reported they had found charred bodies amid the wreckage.
British forces also headed for the area to seal it off while they recovered their dead and anything important from the helicopter. But they were met by a frenzied, jubilant mob.
As the UK forces arrived, backed by armoured vehicles, a hail of stones came from the crowd of hundreds. They jumped for joy and raised their fists in triumph as the plume of thick smoke rose into the air from the blazing crash site.
The crowd also set fire to British armoured vehicles using petrol bombs, but eyewitnesses said the soldiers inside escaped unhurt. British forces fired weapons into the air in an effort to disperse the crowd.
Speaking from Basra, spokesman Major Sebastian Muntz, said: "It has been quite tense and British troops who secured the area came under attack with a variety of weapons. One hopes this is just an isolated incident and we can get on with sorting out Basra."
Although British officials would not confirm the number of dead, the owner of one of the houses near the crash site said he had seen the bodies of five crew members.
"One of them belonged to a major, I could see his rank," said the man, Abu Zaid. "I saw the remains of the others."
As the chaos worsened, shooting broke out between the British soldiers and armed militiamen, and at least four people, including a child, were reported to have been killed in the mayhem.
The crowds from a city which had been regarded as one of the least sympathetic to Saddam Hussein and which had welcomed Allied soldiers three years ago, now chanted slogans of support for insurgents.
They screamed, "We are all soldiers of al-Sayed," a reference to radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, an ardent foe of the presence of foreign troops in Iraq. They also shouted for the Mahdi army, the Shi'ite militia loyal to al-Sadr.
Last September, British forces fought gun battles with al-Sadr's militia after two undercover British soldiers were seized. When the military sent forces to secure the area, crowds of al-Sadr's supporters also threw stones and firebombs at British tanks, setting them on fire, in a similar fashion to the events of yesterday.
Later, the crowd began to scatter as they heard an explosion, believed to be a mortar round. Groups of men set fire to tyres and the situation remained tense.
But Iraqi authorities imposed an overnight curfew at 8pm in an attempt to restore order. Muntz said: "It looks like this has had a good effect on the ground. It is quietening down and people are getting off the street."
Yesterday's attack is a chilling development for the British forces in the region, which have increasingly relied on helicopters to ferry troops around because of the risk of roadside bomb attacks. It will lead to new questions about how much UK commanders can rely on the aircraft if local insurgents have the weapons and the skill to shoot British helicopters down.
Equally unnerving is the response of the Iraqi crowd which closed in on the area where the helicopter went down.
Basra was once seen as the "safe zone" in Iraq, but violence has escalated to such an extent that a US Embassy report said the city is as dangerous now as any of the troubled northern cities. It has become too dangerous for British soldiers even to move around inside their bases without a helmet and flak jacket.
The attack was the first on a British military helicopter in Iraq.
Major Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies, said: "It does look as if this helicopter was on a sort of observational mission and taken out almost certainly by a shoulder-controlled missile. It is very, very worrying."
British-led forces were now likely to suspend flying operations to assess the threat.
Former deputy commander of the SAS, Clive Fairweather, said: "Helicopters are known to be vulnerable to enemy fire from the ground and it's something you have to live with. During my time with the SAS we lost more people because of helicopter accidents than we ever lost to the enemy."
Security expert Colonel Mike Dewar insisted that the morale of the soldiers in Iraq would remain unchanged by the incident. He said: "It won't change a thing if the helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. It is a daily risk and sadly, one day, one will hit."
He added: "Whilst we feel for the families, how does it affect the morale of the soldiers? Not one jot.
"This is a minor occurrence in the greater canvas of what is going on."