News and opinions on situation in Iraq
15/10/04 Britain's forgotten war in southern Iraq

BASRA, Iraq (AFP) Oct 15, 2004 – Fighting for survival in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, a group of British soldiers held firm as armed rebels pounded their base relentlessly with mortars, rockets and gun fire.
“On the peak days it was intense, with rockets exploding on the camp. It was a miracle more soldiers were not hurt,” said one private who declined to be named, describing about three weeks of little-known chaos here in August.

Some 3,500 British troops in the south are due to hand over to a new brigade and return home at the end of October, having survived some of the fiercest clashes Britain's military has experienced since the Korean war.

But the conflict, between the 1st Mechanised Brigade and fighters loyal to the radical cleric Moqtada Sadr, was largely ignored as world attention focused at the time on similar mayhem involving US troops in the holy city of Najaf.

“Individual units saw more fighting in August than individual units saw in last year's war,” said Major Charles Mayo, spokesman for the British-led Multi-National Division South East.

On one occasion, a British patrol came under rocket and small arms fire for one-and-a-half kilometres (less than a mile) as it drove through Basra city centre, soldiers said.

Eventually, those on board were forced to abandon their vehicles, take over a nearby house and barricade themselves inside, from where they fought down to their last round of ammunition just as reinforcements arrived.

The August uprising in Basra and the neighbouring province of Maysan, sprung from Najaf, where attacks by Sadr's men prompted US troops to launch a three-week assault on rebel strongholds that destroyed much of the city.

Fearing the same destruction as the unrest spread south, Basra's governing council appealed to British troops not to follow the US lead.

Instead, the army agreed to bunker down in camps and simply patrol surrounding areas to avoid antagonising the militia.

But the fight was brought to them, with Sadr's so-called Mehdi Army firing more than 100 mortars at one British camp in Basra city, which also housed a special Iraqi police unit.

“At one point, they were fighting on the walls of the camp as our soldiers tried to stop Moqtada's men from climbing over,” said Captain James Grant.

“Every day we were getting attacked and had to fight back,” he said.

British troops and rebels exchanged fire directly on 170 different occasions in Basra during some 23-days of fighting, officials said.

In contrast, only 20-to-30 contacts were recorded in the whole of September.

Despite the intensity of the violence, only four British troops died. There were no available data on Iraqi casualties.

“We were getting pounded by mortars every night, there were some very near misses,” said another young private, who also declined to be named.

“One mortar landed right outside my window but did not go off,” he said.

The constant barrage forced hundreds of soldiers to move into a hotel on the main base in Basra city, where they spent sweaty nights in the height of summer crammed into the lobby on sleeping bags.

Most projects to rebuild Iraq, such as training up a new police force, were suspended as movement by British soldiers and civilians was cut to a minimum.

And the stand-off was only resolved when Iraq's most influential Shiite religious leader, Grand Ayatolla al-Sistani, returned from a three-week trip to London and helped negotiate a peace deal between Sadr and the US troops in Najaf — a move that had a ripple effect everywhere else.

As a result, Iraq's four southern-most provinces under British-led military control, are much calmer, which is good news for the incoming 4th Armoured Brigade who are due to start work in the next two weeks.

But the new homes for those based in Basra city bare the scars of the conflict with a smashed car, hit by mortar fire, still sitting at one camp and a cargo box with a hole gauged out of its side by a rocket at another.

All rights reserved. © 2004 Agence France-Presse

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