British soldier dies during arrest of insurgent leader

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The Independent Online

A British soldier was killed and another was injured yesterday during a major operation which led to the arrest of one of the most senior insurgent leaders in southern Iraq. The death, Britain's 114th since the war began, was the first British fatality in Iraq since 28 May.

The detained Shia militia commander is believed to have been a follower of the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who turned against his former leader. British and Iraqi officials say he has been behind bombings and shootings which have claimed dozens of lives, as well as kidnappings and extortion.

A force of about 600 took part in the mission in an area of northern Basra - almost twice the number of British troops involved in the highly publicised operations taking place at Sangin in Afghanistan.

The arrest of the militia commander and one of his lieutenants had been achieved without a shot being fired but troops forming a perimeter cordon then came under fire and two soldiers were hit.

Both casualties were flown to medical facilities, where one of them, a soldier from the 1st Battalion Devon and Dorset Light Infantry, died. The second soldier suffered "non life-threatening" injuries.

The arrested man is alleged to have extensive links with former militia fighters who had become a "force within a force" in the Iraqi police. Rival factions have fought each other, preyed on the public and confron-ted British forces.

Defence officials refused to comment on whether liaison had taken place with Mr Sadr before the raid. The operation, early yesterday, had been planned for more than six weeks and involved armoured cars and helicopter gunships. It is seen as the start of an exercise to "reclaim the streets". British authorities have been accused of neglecting their duty of care towards the civil population.

According to defence sources, more operations will have to be carried out as part of the exit strategy from Iraq. British forces pulled out of Muthanna province last week, but it is widely accepted that the law and order will need to be imposed before any further withdrawals.

Iraq's Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, recently imposed a state of emergency in the Basra area where the Mehdi Army militia and the rival Badr Brigade have been fighting for territory, and for the region's lucrative oil revenues.