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UK troops 'target Baath militia'

British soldiers south of Basra prepare to fire mortars Thursday.
British soldiers south of Basra prepare to fire mortars Thursday.

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SOUTHERN IRAQ (CNN) -- A British military commander said Thursday his troops were on the outskirts of Basra aiming to wipe out the ruling Baath Party "militia," but played down reports of a civilian uprising against Iraqi forces in the southern Iraqi city.

Air Marshal Brian Burridge, the commander of British forces in the Gulf, said that UK soldiers faced "stiff opposition" from a mixture of Iraqi forces.

Video broadcast on Abu Dhabi television Thursday showed citizens in southern Basra intermingling with British troops, as they sat on top of their tanks near a bridge.

Hundreds of Iraqis were seen crossing the bridge, leaving the city, and a small number of others were heading towards Basra.

British Central Command spokesman Capt. Al Lockwood said he was not totally clear what was going on in Basra, but said it could be "an indication of Iraqi forces giving themselves up."

"We've had instances of this nature over the past three or four days since we surrounded the area," Lockwood said.

Burridge reported Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles left Basra's city center on Tuesday and Wednesday to engage British forces, stationed around Basra and to the west of the city.

A column of about 20 Iraqi armored vehicles was destroyed Tuesday by British forces from the air and land, he said.

British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said a convoy of three Iraqi tanks were destroyed Wednesday night, and dismissed earlier British media reports that a column of 120 Iraqi armored vehicles had been targeted.

In a separate incident further south, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards destroyed 14 Iraqi T55 tanks early Thursday as the British forces headed toward the Faw Peninsula, British Chief of Defense Staff Adm. Sir Michael Boyce said. (Full Story)

None of the Royal Scots' Challenger-2 tanks were damaged and continued on to the Faw Peninsula to reinforce three command posts, Boyce said. It was not clear if the Iraqi tanks had come from Basra.

Burridge also said the Baath Party militia was putting pressure on remnants of the Iraqi army's 51st division to reoccupy their equipment after intimidating them and in some instances, by executing some soldiers' families.

Local Iraqis welcome British tanks as they arrive in Basra.
Local Iraqis welcome British tanks as they arrive in Basra.

"They are paramilitaries who live above the law, who have ruled the roost for years, and they just see that the only way they can work this is to intimidate the regular army who have already deserted," Burridge said, describing the Baath Party militia.

But U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said during the Central Command briefing Thursday that some of those regular army forces who left the battlefield and were then pressed back into service by the irregulars "may have made another choice and that is to end that type of behavior" by turning "their guns the other way."

"The people of Basra are starting to recognize that UK forces will deal decisively and on our terms with the remnants of the regime," Burridge said.

British military spokesman Col. Chris Vernon disputed British media reports that a significant civilian uprising against the Iraqi Baath Party militia was under way. But British officials have confirmed that Iraqi paramilitary forces fired on civilians with mortars from the Baath Party headquarters in Basra.

A correspondent for Al-Jazeera satellite news network in Basra reported Thursday that electricity and water had been restored to many parts of Basra. The extensive fighting cut off water and electricity in much of the city.

Iraq's Health Minister Umid Midhat Mubarak said Thursday that a "very dramatic situation" existed in Basra, with the threat of disease from poor water supplies and sewerage.

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 coalition forces at the time, thousands were killed, according to accounts from Iraqi exiles.

Vernon described the British army's role in Basra as "a twin-track approach."

"We are now undertaking a hearts and minds campaign to try to win over the civilians, instill in them a degree of confidence in ourselves, bring in humanitarian aid, talking to them, not appearing aggressive to them, to bring them over on to our side," he said.

"[It's] all part of the same thing ... hit the Baath Party hard and the irregulars while trying to win over the other people of the Basra province."

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