British troops arrest 10 in raid on insurgents

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The sound of the bomb blast still echoed when the shooting began. Silhouetted in moonlight, a figure steadily fired a Kalashnikov at British troops 20 yards away.

The sound of the bomb blast still echoed when the shooting began. Silhouetted in moonlight, a figure steadily fired a Kalashnikov at British troops 20 yards away.

The soldiers of the Scots Guards returned fire, and, after a brief but intense exchange, with around 150 rounds slamming into the walls and the mud road, the gunman fled, twisting around to let off bursts of fire before disappearing. As one group of soldiers moved through the narrow alleys trying to find the roof from where the blast bomb had been flung, more gunfire came from an alleyway, and then from around a nearby mosque.

A 22-year-old corporal, who had just faced live fire for the first time, shook his head. "I can't believe it," he said. "The guy just stood and fired." In the meantime other troops had burst into a house, one of a series of targets for insurgents who, it is claimed, were planning to carry out a bombing campaign in Basra during today's elections.

The sweep continued through the crumbling tenements of Old Basra. The streets were empty because of a dusk-to-dawn curfew, but there was still an absence of people, despite the commotion taking place outside.

By the time the operation, codenamed Cauldron, had finished at 5.30am yesterday, 10 men were arrested and weapons and bomb-making equipment - explosives, detonators, circuit boards and switches - had been seized.

British and Iraqi authorities claimed the finds had foiled part of a concerted campaign to violently disrupt polling in southern Iraq, where the Shia population, unlike the Sunnis further north, are expected to vote in large numbers.

However, senior officers acknowledge that this is no guarantee that an attack will not take place. The Scots Guards battle group, with Warrior armoured cars and Challenger tanks, and air support, are on standby at Shaiba camp, south of Basra, for a "doomsday scenario" of bombings and street fighting.

The raids were in a mixed Shia and Sunni area. British forces refused to comment on claims that those arrested were Sunnis. The threat, however, is not confined to one community. The Independent on Sunday has learned that just days ago British troops shot dead three members of the Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army near Nasiriyah.

The British soldiers, from the 7th LSR (Logistical Support Regiment), had been on routine escort duty going north from Basra when they were ambushed. Forty-eight hours later, three Chinese-made 107mm rockets were discovered aimed at Basra Palace, used by British and US soldiers and officials, primed to be launched today.

The raids on Basra were undertaken by the Scots Guards battle group, based at the Shaiba camp, where last week nine British soldiers were injured and an Iraqi killed in a car bomb attack claimed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qa'ida militant.

A surveillance helicopter had spotted men on rooftops in the targeted buildings. The plan, said the military, was for a "soft knock" by Iraqi police to gain entry by permission. However, the knocks were by British soldiers and the front doors were forced open at a number of houses after only the briefest delay.

Women and children were present at the houses. They were separated and the men questioned by members of the Royal Military Police through interpreters. Afterwards they were taken to Shaiba camp for further interrogation.