British troops fight off Mehdi Army in Basra

Radical cleric offers rewards for killing UK soldiers as prison scandal stokes Shia uprising
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British troops were attacked in Basra yesterday by Shia militiamen loyal to the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadrin what appeared to be an attempt to take control of the city.

British troops were attacked in Basra yesterday by Shia militiamen loyal to the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadrin what appeared to be an attempt to take control of the city.

Gunmen from the Mehdi Army militia attacked British patrols, set up their own checkpoints and tried to seize government buildings. But by evening, British forces appeared to be back in control.

The sudden violence came a day after Mr Sadr's senior aide in the city offered cash rewards to anyone who killed or captured a British soldier, and said that anyone who captured a woman soldier could keep her as a slave.

Sheikh Abdel Sattar al-Bahadli said the rewards were a response to the torture and mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by occupation forces.

Apart from the abuses by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison, there have been accusations that British soldiers have tortured and beaten to death prisoners in Basra - several cases of which were first reported by The Independent on Sunday.

Yesterday, British forces described the violence as "disturbances". But reports suggested it was more serious. At dawn there were explosions over the city and the Mehdi Army began making appeals from mosques' minarets for people to come into the streets.

The militia tried to take control of the governor's office and the local oil company, but was forced back by British troops and Iraqi police under UK command.

An MoD spokesman said last night Basra had returned to "relatively calm".

He said fighting began yesterday morning after crowds of demonstrators, including "a number of armed personnel", gathered throughout the city. "Demonstrators have been gradually dispersed throughout the day and large sections of the city are now calm," the spokesman said.

There were still some "small incidents" occurring but Iraqi police and the Coalition were "working to restore order and calm".

Earlier yesterday, a gun battle broke out in front of the Iraqi Central Bank's office, and the militia seized a bridge on the main road south of the city. Sheikh Bahadli led a group of militiamen who took control of a major traffic intersection also in the south. British forces surrounded Mr Sadr's local headquarters with about 50 vehicles in a stand-off that lasted several hours.

At one point, the streets were said to be deserted apart from gunmen.

Four British soldiers were injured and two Iraqis confirmed dead with one captured during the violence, the MoD said. Coalition authorities said some of the militia may have arrived from outside Basra.

There was also violence yesterday in nearby Amara, where militiamen attacked a British military convoy. Witnesses said nine guerrillas were killed as helicopter gunships gave support to troops. One child was killed when his house was hit. Two British soldiers were injured, said the military.

During his Friday sermon at a Basra mosque, Sheikh Bahadli showed documents and pictures he claimed were of three Iraqi women being raped by British soldiers. He offered rewards of $350 (£200) for capturing a soldier, and $159 for killing one.

Apart from its investigation into controversial Daily Mirror pictures alleging torture, the MoD has confirmed it is investigating several Iraqi deaths in custody, some of which The Independent on Sunday first revealed. Baha Mousa died after being arrested by British soldiers last September. His family allege he was beaten to death.

Mr Sadr's forces were also being attacked by the US around Najaf and Karbala yesterday. The cities contain the holiest Shia shrines in the world, and there are fears if the US is as heavy-handed as it was last month in Fallujah, there may be a fearsome Shia backlash that would go beyond the limited support presently seen for Mr Sadr.