Commandos seize Iraqi officers near city under siege

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The Independent Online

Beneath a sky blackened by oil fires yesterday, British forces reported their most successful strike yet against the Iraqi forces still in control of Basra – claiming to have captured a general and killed a colonel from the Republican Guard.

Beneath a sky blackened by oil fires yesterday, British forces reported their most successful strike yet against the Iraqi forces still in control of Basra ­ claiming to have captured five senior officers and killed a colonel from the Republican Guard.

Officials claimed initially that a commando unit seized a general in a village close to the south of the encircled city, as the battle for Basra appeared to have begun in earnest. Officials said the officer was being interrogated in the hope that he would provide information on troop strengths and positions inside the city but later they admitted that a "little bit of rank confusion" had overrated the man's significance. His rank was unclear last night.

Group Captain Al Lockwood, a British forces spokesman, said. "At this stage it's unknown exactly which arm of the Iraqi armed forces he is from, but we are hoping that this will lead us to get information that will assist us with our operations."

About 600 men from 40 Commando attacked the suburb of Abu Al Khasib in an operation designed to encourage Saddam Hussein's opponents in Iraq's second city to rise up against his regime and to show that Allied forces were serious about taking the city and toppling his government.

British troops suffered an unknown number of injuries, some serious, although at least 300 enemy prisoners of war were taken and a number of Iraqi tanks, armoured troop carriers and bunkers destroyed.

Iraqi forces are apparently in turn seeking to obtain as much information as possible on the Allied troops' strengths. On the Zubayr bridge at the south-western corner of the city, a nervous young man who gave his name as Abis said that intelligence officials loyal to Saddam Hussein were mingling with the thousands of people trying to get into the city. "They are in civilian clothes," said the man, a resident of Basra for all of his 22 years.

He pointed out a white Nissan truck he said he believed was being used by the officials and asked The Independent to inform the British troops controlling the checkpoints. "There could be grenades under the seats," he said.

Gp Capt Lockwood said that as well as encircling the city, British troops were engaged in "aggressive patrolling" in the city itself. What is all too clear is that the situation in and around Basra is far from secure.

At another bridge, troops from the 7th Armoured Brigade said they had come under fire on Saturday night. Yesterday morning, gunfire and artillery shells were still sounding. "It's still very busy around here," one soldier said.

Until yesterday British troops had prevented young men of fighting age from entering Basra, suggesting that they could be coerced into fighting. The policy caused chaos ­ creating a huge mêlée at the base of the Zubayr bridge as thousands tried to enter the city. Every second person was seemingly a tomato farmer trying to get his crop to market.

Then the decision was taken to allow people into the city. "What a ... waste of all that effort," said a soldier from the Irish Guards who had been manning the checkpoint. People leaving the city were still being checked and Capt Alex Cosby said four or five Iraqi men had been stopped yesterday morning and were being held as prisoners of war.

"Further up, the city is very much controlled by Fedayeen [militia loyal to President Saddam] and Republican Guards who are dressed in civilian clothes," he claimed. "They are coercing the regular army to fight against their will."

Group Capt Lockwood said the Iraqis seizedhad been heading west when they were met by elements of 3 Commando Brigade of the Royal Marines. He said he believed the Republican Guard officers had been sent to oversee resistance by the irregular forces there.

¿ A Marine UH-1 Huey helicopter crashed at a forward supply and refuelling point in southern Iraq, killing three US servicemen and wounding one, the US military said. Hostile fire was not involved. ( Includes pool reports)