British troops swoop on Basra 'smugglers'

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British forces in Basra have launched a major sweep operation in the southern Iraqi city, arresting members of what officials said was a smuggling network bringing arms from Iran.

In a night-time operation, 300 soldiers flooded Basra, securing the city, while several platoons were sent in to carry out precisely timed arrests at nine different addresses on the outskirts. Seven suspects were taken.

Iran's involvement in the insurgency in Iraq remains a controversial issue. While America has accused Tehran of supplying fighters and explosives, British claims that the Iranian government was behind increasingly sophisticated infrared bombs aimed at troops were later retracted.

Last week, a roadside bomb hit a patrol, killing several civilians, while other devices have been found in the area. The British area is flanked by hundreds of miles of border, at points just 15 miles away, with marshes which make it difficult to patrol. But yesterday, military sources in Basra played down the significance of the arrests and insisted there was no evidence of any concerted attempt by the Iranians to destabilise the region.

While the seven men arrested over the weekend are not considered to be key figures in operations out of Iran, it is hoped information gleaned from them might lead to more pivotal figures in the attacks. "The people who were arrested are suspected of smuggling arms, drugs and alcohol. We don't believe they are ... motivated simply by the money," said one source.

Troops from the Highlanders, the King's Own Royal Border Regiment, the 1st Battalion, the Royal Fusiliers and Royal Horse Artillery patrolled the city in force over the weekend, while men from the King's Own Arnhem Company made an arrest in al-Tannumah, a poor, largely Christian area across the river from central Basra.

Captain Rob Small, 28, who commanded one of the arrest teams, said they met no resistance as they broke in to a tiny home packed with 15 sleeping people, including eight children. "You feel sorry for the kids, but the family seemed fine. Our MP [military policeman] was playing with the kids, swinging them around. It was all a bit strange. The man gave his name and he was very well-behaved," he said.

Major Jonny Crook, who oversaw the operation, said they met with a similar lack of resistance at other addresses. "When we go in with overwhelming force, the locals tend to react positively. They have had enough of this. We get people coming and giving us information, saying you want this guy removed. People have the perception that everybody is against us, but it is completely not the case," he said.

The Army said yesterday that five men had been released, but that two continued to be detained.

* The list in yesterday's Independent of the names of some 3,000 Iraqi dead was compiled by the Iraq Body Count project and the Civic survey (Iraq 2003).