British Attack Column of Iraqi Tanks Near Basra
British forces struck a convoy of 14 Iraqi tanks and four armored personnel carriers, thwarting the latest attempt by Iraqi troops to move south out of Basra, a city ringed by British coalition troops.
U.K. forces in Basra have come “up against stiff opposition from a mixture of regime paramilitaries and the remnants of the Iraqi Army’s 51st Division, who we believe have been coerced by the regime to reoccupy their equipment,” Air Marshall Brian Burridge, the top British commander in the Gulf, said on Thursday.
“U.K. forces have been taking the fight to the remnants of the regime’s paramilitary forces, including the Special Security Organization and the Ba’ath Party militia,” Burridge added.
Group spokesman Captain Al Lockwood described the confrontation as “a very quick, short, sharp engagement,” adding that the armored vehicles “were all destroyed” as the convoy attempted to move southeast toward the Faw Peninsula.
“They did not surrender and therefore 14 tanks and a number of APCs [armored personnel carriers] were destroyed, with no losses to ourselves,” he said at a press briefing Thursday.
Burridge said coalition forces would continue to target specific areas of the city held by the regime paramilitaries and the command element of the Ba’ath party, which had started to “fire mortars and artillery at their own people.”
Military officials say the loyalists holding out in Basra were forcing Iraqi conscripts and others into combat by threatening to execute them or their families.
“They are being forced to fight by these militia. They are going into, apparently, people’s homes, forcing the men to drive these vehicles to try and lead the escape out of Basra,” Lockwood said.
“They are obviously coercing them into this action, whereas in fact we would have wished them to surrender,” he said.
Although sporadic fighting continues primarily in the southern parts of Basra, military officials report that coalition forces were making progress in subduing the Saddam loyalists and Iraqi fighters.
“Basra was calmer throughout the majority of Wednesday,” Burridge noted, adding “[t]he people of Basra are starting to recognize that U.K. forces will deal decisively and on our terms with the remnants of the regime.”
British troops have engaged other groups of armored vehicles reportedly attempting to flee the city in recent days, but the number of Iraqi tanks involved in those confrontations has varied in different reports.
Embedded correspondents reported seeing a convoy of up to 120 Iraqi tanks leaving Basra overnight Wednesday local time. However, British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said Thursday that the convoy included only three tanks.
“Those tanks were dealt with. They were destroyed,” Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon told reporters. “Maybe they were testing out our determination to deal with them. I can assure you we showed them.”
Lockwood told the BBC that reports from journalists embedded with front-line troops sometimes contained inaccuracies.
“There is obviously a certain degree of speculation,” Lockwood said. “A large amount of this comes from the embedded journalists that are with our troops at the front line — a little bit of, I won’t say poetic license, but obviously a very narrow view of what exactly is going on.”
However, Burridge told reporters Basra remains a “very difficult and confused situation.”
“I describe it as probably the classic ambiguous battle space, but I sense that what we’re seeing is people trying to surrender, desert or whatever realizing what’s going on with the Ba’ath Party and the others who are trying to apply their motivation and trying to avoid them,” he said.