Iraqis, British Troops Spar After Crash

By ROBERT H. REID, Associated Press Writer 28 minutes ago

BAGHDAD, Iraq - A British military helicopter apparently was hit by a missile Saturday and crashed in Basra, triggering a confrontation in which jubilant Iraqis pelted British troops with stones, hurled firebombs and shouted slogans in support of a radical Shiite Muslim cleric.

Iraqi police said four British crew members died in the crash in the southern city, and four Iraqi adults and a child were reported killed during the ensuing melee when Shiite gunmen exchanged fire with British soldiers who hurried to the scene. About 30 civilians were injured.

Reminiscent of other outbursts of Iraqis cheering the deaths of foreigners, the chaotic scene was widely shown on Iraqi state television and on the Al-Jazeera satellite station.

The violence underscored that discontent over the presence of foreign soldiers has been growing among Iraq's majority Shiites even though they have generally steered clear of the Sunni Arab-dominated insurgency.

Police Capt. Mushtaq Khazim said the helicopter went down in a vacant lot between two houses after it was struck by a shoulder-fired missile — a weapon widely available among insurgent groups and armed militias in Iraq. He said the four crew members were killed.

British soldiers with armored vehicles rushed to the site and were met by a hail of stones from a crowd of at least 250 people, many of them teenagers, who jumped for joy and raised their fists as thick smoke rose from the wreckage.

As many as three armored vehicles were set on fire, apparently with gasoline bombs and a rocket-propelled grenade, but the troops inside escaped unhurt, witnesses said.

The crowd chanted "we are all soldiers of al-Sayed," a reference to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, an ardent foe of foreign troops being in Iraq.

Calm returned by nightfall as Iraqi authorities imposed a curfew and hundreds of Iraqi police and soldiers set up checkpoints and patrolled the streets, residents said. Sporadic rocket fire could be heard throughout Basra, Iraq's second largest city.

The British Defense Ministry confirmed only that there were "casualties" in the afternoon crash but refused to give a figure or discuss the cause.

A British spokeswoman, Capt. Kelly Goodall, said British soldiers who responded came "under attack by a variety of weapons, including small arms fire, petrol bombs, as well as blast bombs and stone."

She said the soldiers fired "a small number of live rounds" in self defense. She said there was some minor injuries among the troops on the ground, but gave no details.

In London, Britain's newly appointed defense secretary, Des Browne, said he was "deeply saddened" by the death of British soldiers, "which reminds us of the risks our servicemen and women face every day" in Iraq.

The crash came at a tough time for British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who angered many Britons, including members of his own Labour Party, by his support for the war. On Friday, Blair carried out a sweeping overhaul of his Cabinet after Labour suffered a drubbing in local elections, drawing calls for the prime minister to set a firm timetable for leaving office.

Tensions have been worsening in southern Iraq, where Britain has about 8,000 soldiers and other countries also have troops.

Three Polish soldiers were wounded by a bomb Saturday in the mostly Shiite city of Diwaniyah. On April 27, a roadside bomb killed three Italian soldiers and one Romanian near Nasiriyah, another Shiite city in the south.

Trouble in the largely Shiite region is due in part to the growing influence of al-Sadr, who led two armed uprisings against U.S.-led forces in 2004 and who has been an outspoken critic of the U.S.-led foreign military mission.

Last September, British troops battled Shiite gunmen in Basra after two British undercover soldiers were seized by police, whose ranks have been infiltrated by Shiite militiamen. British forces staged a raid that freed the men.

Tensions boiled again in February when the London newspaper News of the World published video images that appeared to show British soldiers beating Iraqi civilians during a riot in Amarah in 2004.

Shiite anger has also been stoked by a perceived shift in U.S. policy since the arrival of U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, a Sunni Muslim who has criticized the Shiite-led Interior Ministry for human rights abuses and made overtures to Sunni insurgents in hopes of getting them to lay down their arms.

In violence elsewhere, a suicide bomber wearing an Iraqi army uniform entered an Iraqi base in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit and detonated an explosives belt, killing three officers, said the Iraqi Defense Ministry's spokesman, Maj. Gen. Abdul-Aziz Mohammed Jassim.

The attack appeared to be part of an insurgent campaign to discourage Sunni Arabs from joining the government army and police.

The U.S. command also announced that an American soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad on Friday. At least 2,417 U.S. military personnel have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003.

In other developments Saturday, according to police:

• Two Iraqi soldiers and three insurgents were killed in a firefight near Youssifiyah, 12 miles south of Baghdad.

• A car bomb killed two policemen and an Iraqi soldier about 30 miles north of Baqouba.

• One policeman was killed and eight people injured by roadside bombings in the capital. A drive-by shooting killed two brothers in the city.

• Police in Baghdad found the bodies of 18 Iraqi men who had been kidnapped and brutally killed by sectarian death squads. Meanwhile, seven Iraqis, including three paramilitary policemen, were kidnapped south of Baghdad.

• A roadside bomb in the northern city of Mosul wounded two Iraqi policemen. Police also found the bullet-ridden bodies a father and son who had been kidnapped earlier in the day.