In another grim milestone in the Iraq war yesterday, a British soldier became the 100th to die in action when his patrol was hit by a roadside bomb .
The attack happened in the British-controlled southern city of Basra, where the radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr wields considerable influence.
It came as US and Iraqi government forces killed one of Sadr's senior aides, Khadhim al-Hamadani, in Baghdad and another well-known Sadr official, Sheikh Khalil al-Maliki, died in a drive-by shooting in Basra. Officials at Sadr's political office described the killings as acts of "political assassination" and warned of serious consequences.
The British military is already concerned about a backlash in the overwhelmingly Shia south when US troops begin their "surge" against Shia militias in Baghdad.
Members of Sadr's Mehdi Army were arrested by British troops during Operation Sinbad, aimed at rooting out militia fighters who had infiltrated the police force. The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, said last month that more than 400 Mehdi Army members had been arrested in the south.
The soldier who died yesterday was from the 2nd Battalion the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment. He was travelling in a Warrior armoured vehicle when the device exploded, injuring a number of civilians.
A total of 131 British service personnel have been killed since the invasion by US and UK forces in 2003. Out of these, 100 have been classified by the MoD as either killed in action or from wounds suffered in action. Other deaths were accidents or linked to natural causes, illness remaining unexplained or are still under investigation.
In the first fortnight of this year, the MoD said 99 British military and civilian personnel were treated for injuries in action, and 1,242 were admitted to field hospitals for disease or injuries not suffered in combat. In the same period, 724 British military and civilian personnel were evacuated from the country.
British forces are carrying out patrols in Maysan province which has a long border with Iran. The US is said to be gravely worried about escalated infiltration and has been pressuring the British military to postpone plans to withdraw the patrols by the end of the month.
Under current planning, Britain is due to pull out about 3,000 of its Iraq force of 7,200 by the spring when there is expected to be renewed and large-scale fighting in Afghanistan.
Senior officers have intimated, however, that this may not be possible if there is an outbreak of violence from Shia militias in the south as the US offensive in Baghdad gets under way.Reuse content