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Civil uprising reported in Basra

British Royal Marines prepare to fire a mortar towards Basra on Tuesday.
British Royal Marines prepare to fire a mortar towards Basra on Tuesday.

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- British troops and tanks are maneuvering around the city of Basra, where British commanders said it appeared a popular uprising was under way.

Two British soldiers were killed by friendly fire Tuesday night outside the southern Iraqi city, British military officials said. No further details were released.

Iraqi Information Minister Mohamed Saeed al Sahaf told the Arabic television network Al Jazeera that there was no revolt in Basra.

But Richard Gaisford, a reporter in the southern city for the British television network ITN, said British gunners had fired at Iraqi troops who attempted to suppress the revolt with mortar fire.

Journalists Juliet Bremner and Romilly Weeks said British forces were preparing to enter the city if they determined such a move would be useful.

They said British commanders had seen groups of 40 to 50 citizens at various locations on the streets.

The residents of Basra, an important center of Iraq's Shiite population, staged an uprising after the Gulf War of 1991.

But without backup from any of the coalition forces that had driven Saddam Hussein's regime out of Kuwait, hundreds of thousands were killed.

Party leader seized

Earlier Tuesday, British troops seized a senior Baath Party leader from his offices in Az Zubayr, southwest of Basra, said British military spokesman Colonel Chris Vernon.

He added that the swiftly conducted raid was meant to inspire Basra's civilian population into turning against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's government.

Gaisford, with the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, said: "Iraqi forces are firing mortar rounds on protesters who are protesting against the Baath Party.

"British forces are massing on the outskirts of Basra waiting to go in. It appears that the people of Basra have had enough of Saddam Hussein's regime and are rising up against the regime."

About 1,000 irregulars of the Iraqi army are estimated to be holed up in Basra, where resistance to the allied advance has been stubborn.

The Saddam Fedayeen militia, dressed in civilian clothes, is also in the city and firing toward the British. There are reports that the Fedayeen, on the outskirts of Basra, are resisting with human shields in front of them.

Vernon said British forces also killed 20 irregulars in the swiftly conducted raid. He added: "We're seizing tactical opportunities as they occur."

British troops turned back a "battalion-sized" counterattack by Iraqi forces Tuesday southeast of Basra and destroyed about 20 armored vehicles, a British military spokesman said.

British officials have said Basra, a city of 1.7 million people which has been without electricity and water for two days, is now a "legitimate military target," with the aim of providing humanitarian relief.

Previously, the allied coalition wanted to avoid fighting inside Basra. But some of the Iraqi 51st Division, which was defending areas south of the city, have pulled back into Basra with artillery, tanks and infantry. (Full story)

British military officials have also said the key Iraqi port of Umm Qasr is now "fully secure" and that aid will be able to enter Iraq through the town "in the near future." (Full story)

EDITOR'S NOTE: CNN's policy is to not report information that puts operational security at risk.

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