The move reverses the U.K.’s earlier plan to avoid urban combat in Iraq’s second-largest city.
British military officials say the change came in order to get humanitarian aid to the city’s inhabitants.
British forces surrounded the city early Tuesday, blocking Iraqi tanks from breaking out of the town. They continue to face tough resistance from Iraqi fighters, including members of Saddam Hussein’s elite Fedayeen paramilitary force.
Two British soldiers were reportedly killed in fighting near the town as artillery gunfire exchanges continued throughout the morning.
“We’re obviously assessing the situation before we commence operations to take out the non-regular militia which seems to be set to opposing our taking of the objective,” Group Capt. Al Lockwood, spokesman for British forces in the Persian Gulf, told the Associated Press.
With 1.3 million people in Basra, Lockwood said, “we need to secure the city for the inhabitants and to ensure that their basic necessities in life are taken care of, and obviously that the necessary humanitarian aid, medical facilities are restored as quickly as possible.”
Basra’s main water treatment plant has been out of commission since power to much of the city was cut during fighting on Friday. A spokeswoman for the Swiss-based International Committee of the Red Cross said that remaining plants can only supply 30 percent of the city’s water needs, and that the quality of that remaining water is poor.
Coalition forces say Iraqi opposition in the city and other areas in the south has thwarted plans to distribute aid to Basra. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warns the city will face a humanitarian crisis without the immediate restoration of adequate water supplies.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Victor Renuart told reporters during a briefing Tuesday at coalition Central Command in Doha, Qatar, that coalition forces seek to return Basra to a state of security for its residents.
“Our intent is not to seize the city, our intent is to return security to the city as soon as we can” and clamp down on pockets of militants, Renuart said.
He said part of the coalition’s goal is to use the recently secured port of Umm Qasr to replenish Basra’s water supply.
“We do believe that it’s been a real crisis, a humanitarian issue that’s been caused by the Iraqi regime,” Renuart said, adding the coalition’s goal is to “get water flowing into Basra very quickly.”
Renuart said that when humanitarian shipments begin flowing into Umm Qasr, coalition officials intend to run a water pipeline to Basra and to ship water over land as well.
CNN reported Tuesday morning that British troops said taking Basra would be a “high-risk” and “difficult operation,” since the Iraqi army had pulled back into the city, apparently as part of a strategy to fight coalition troops on their own terms. CNN also quoted British officials as saying that an unit of the Iraqi Fedayeen was arming Basra residents to fight against coalition forces.
British Lieutenant Colonel Ronnie McCourt told reporters at Central Command that his country’s forces would proceed with caution.
“All options are open to us. If you’re going to put your hand into the hornet’s nest you have to make sure you are fully protected. Close-quarter [fighting] really would not be our first choice.”
Earlier Tuesday and overnight, British forces, aided by air support, destroyed as many as 25 Iraqi armored vehicles, including a number of Soviet-made T-55 battle tanks, a British military spokesman told the AP.
British troops say they have secured most of southern Iraq as U.S. forces press northward to Baghdad in their campaign to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.