British troops on high alert amid fears of suicide attack

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The Independent Online

British forces and officials in Southern Iraq are in the highest state of alert since the end of the war following intelligence reports that they face the threat of an imminent terrorist attack.

The civil administration for the Basra region has declared a state of "lock-down" due to fears of a suicide bombing similar to the one on the Italian base at Nassiriyah which killed 27 people last week.

Both the British military and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) confirmed yesterday that urgent safety measures have been taken following the receipt of "reliable information".

This is in addition to the immediate review of security which took place after the blast at Nassiriyah, where the Italian contingent had been following a comparatively relaxed British-style regime rather than the more aggressive American model.

Unofficial reports suggest that any attack may coincide with the impending visit of President George W Bush to Britain, an action intended to gain widespread international publicity.

The British-controlled zone is now on Jupiter alert, state three, the official interpretation of which is that "specific information has been received which indicates that substantive threat exists against a military target in the divisional area in the near future". The exact location of the target, however, is not known.

Following the alert, the international staff of the CPA in the area have been instructed not to make any journeys unless absolutely necessary outside their heavily fortified headquarters, a former palace of Saddam Hussain, guarded by British and Allied soldiers, as well as armed guards supplied by the security company Control Risks.

The guards, gurkha and Fijian former servicemen, escort any journey made outside the palace by the CPA employees who have also now been instructed to wear body armour while walking around the grounds inside.

British troops have been ordered to wear their body armour and helmets when outdoors at all times, and maintain maximum vigilance. Other precautions taken include intensification of surveillance and surprise spot checks on vehicles.

The British forces faced rioting in Basra in August, and deaths since the official end of hostilities include six Royal Military Policeman killed at the town of Majr al Kabir. Currently soldiers on patrol on the streets of Basra face around eight shooting incidents a month - far lower than that faced by the Americans facing escalating casualties in central and northern Iraq.

Relations between local people and both the British-led multi-national force and the CPA appear to be generally good. A series of attempted roadside bomb attacks had tailed off since the clearing of potential hiding places for devices.

Unlike the Americans, the British have also been extremely careful about making claims about the presence of al-Qa'ida fighters in Iraq. However, the policy of the British-led Multi-National Division, which included the Italians, of trying to win over hearts and minds of the local population with their "softly softly approach", leave them more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

Major Charlie Mayo, spokesman for the MND, said: "Obviously we have had to take a good look at our security following Nassariyah. But we have also received additional intelligence of a threat. We have to look at this, and we are taking the necessary action. The CPA have made their own assessment, and the safety measures they have taken are their own decision.

"There are obviously gunmen out there who are trying to shoot and bomb British soldiers and we are simply taking sensible precautions."

Henry Hogger, the deputy head of the CPA in southern Iraq, a former British ambassador to Syria, said yesterday: "We have received information about a security threat, and certain measures have to be taken. I would not want to get into details about the information, but we should put things in perspective. Just because we are taking precautions, does not mean that we shall not continue with doing our job. We intend to continue with our work with the Iraqi people."