British soldiers arrest 12 in Basra

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The Independent Online

The men taken into custody late last night also are suspected of supporting the al-Mahdi militia, which is controlled by Muqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqi rebel Shiite cleric, said British military spokesman Major Steven Melbourne. The militia has been accused of carrying out such attacks with help from neighbouring Iran.

Melbourne declined to provide any other details about the raid, which apparently was peaceful, or say what would happen to the detainees.

In London, the Ministry of Defence confirmed the raid.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Tony Blair said Government suspects that Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah might be supplying technology and explosives to Shiite Muslim militant groups operating in Iraq, but he provided no proof.

Sheik Khalil Al-Maliki, a member of the al-Mahdi militia, told The Associated Press that British soldiers and tanks raided the home of police officer Ali Eliwi just after midnight, detaining him and 11 other Iraqis there and seizing their weapons. "I think the reason is the recent British claim about Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs," Al-Maliki said.

British and US forces have been attacked in recent months by roadside bombs packed with "shaped charges," which are much more deadly than conventional roadside bombs.

Such attacks have killed six British troops since July, and late last month two US Army soldiers were killed when a bomb exploded near their vehicle in Shaibah, a town near Basra.

The arrests in Basra last night could increase tensions between the 8,500 British troops in Iraq and the provincial government and people of Basra, Iraq's second largest city.