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UK military reports Basra uprising

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BASRA, Iraq (CNN) -- "Massive resentment amongst the population" of this southern city has led to an uprising against the Iraqi regime and its forces, British military officials at Central Command said Wednesday.

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"The regime and its irregular forces will feel the backlash," the officials said. "We look forward to watching it develop and encourage it where we can. Coalition forces are engaging groups of enemy and paramilitary forces as they flee the city."

However, reporters stationed in Basra -- from Abu Dhabi television and Al-Jazeera satellite network -- said they saw no signs of civilian unrest.

The British based their assessment on reports Tuesday that mortar was fired from the headquarters of the ruling Baath Party toward a group of civilians.

"We have no doubt that yesterday evening they [Iraqi forces] were exchanging fire with their own people," British Defense Minister Lewis Moonie said Wednesday. "The position is still very confused we're proceeding with extreme caution."

In turn, the British military authorities and journalists reported that a civilian revolt began Tuesday against the ruling Baath Party. Iraqi paramilitary forces have been targeting civilians with mortars to try to quell the rebellion, the British officials said.

"They have been neutralized by the U.K. 7th Armor Brigade Artillery," the officials said. "We have radars, that by tracing the trajectory of mortar rounds, are able to work out the source, as well as the target location, which in this case were civilians in Basra."

The British forces also launched a missile strike that destroyed the Baath headquarters in Basra, said Richard Gaisford, an ITN reporter embedded with the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.

The British officials at Central Command said they did not yet have a clear picture of the scope or scale of the uprising or "where it will take us."

"Once the situation is clearer we will look to assist and liberate the people of Basra and allow humanitarian aid to start flowing into the city," the officials said.

The reported uprising came soon after British authorities seized a senior regional Baath party leader -- a capture that was meant to inspire civilians to revolt against Saddam's regime.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair earlier said Iraqis were holding back to act against Saddam's regime until they were sure coalition forces would support them.

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, thousands were killed, according to accounts from Iraqi exiles.

Iraqi Information Minister Mohamed Saeed al Sahaf told the Arabic television network Al-Jazeera Tuesday there was no revolt under way.

First reports of the uprising came as reporters there described fierce resistance in and around the city. They said as many as 1,000 Iraqi army irregulars had withdrawn into the city.

Members of the Iraqi militia were also dressed in civilian clothes and possibly using human shields as protection.

Earlier Tuesday, British troops seized a senior Baath Party leader from his offices in Az Zubayr, southwest of Basra, said British Col. Chris Vernon, who said the raid was meant to inspire the city's civilian population into turning against Saddam's government.

He said British forces also killed 20 irregulars in the swiftly conducted raid. "Whap, we're in. Whap, we're out, and 20 of them are gone," Vernon said.

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