KUWAIT CITY—British armored tanks and commandoes dug in for a lengthy siege of the key southern Iraqi city of Basra early Wednesday, amid concerns about water and food supplies for the population and hazy reports of an uprising there against Iraqis loyal to Saddam Hussein.
Elements of the 7th Armored Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade arrayed north of the city hammered targets in Basra's outskirts with artillery in an effort to demoralize 1,000 or so irregular Iraqi troops holed up in the city and to support what they hoped was a budding revolt among the city's Shiite population.
"It is in our interest to ensure any uprising must succeed," said British Army spokesman Col. Chris Vernon.
British officials acknowledged they knew little of what was going on in Basra, and officials in Washington cautioned that the revolt might not necessarily be all good news for coalition forces. Some reports said the uprising was the work of an Iranian-backed group that favored establishing an Islamic republic.
"Wait and see," Vernon said. "We're trying to drive a wedge between the Iraqi Army and the people. We encourage them to rise up. If Basra does rise up, it's an omen of what's to come."
The British decision Tuesday to declare the city of 1.5 million a military target was a sharp reversal of the position it had taken last week, when British and U.S. commanders said they wouldn't enter the city because it had no military value.
Since then, however, concerns have been raised that residents of the city were facing shortages of water and food, and it has become clear that coalition forces are able to exercise little control through southern Iraq, as Iraqi forces continue to harass military checkpoints and influence events in population centers.
Earlier, British troops and U.S. Marine aircraft turned back a ferocious Iraqi counterattack on the city, destroying 20 armored vehicles in the southwest and another 14 to the north.
In the most daring raid of the war, a British armored regiment snatched a senior Baath party official in the city of Az Zubayr, south of Basra, in an effort to break the morale of Saddam loyalists.
"We are seizing tactical opportunities as they come, on our terms," said Vernon, a spokesman for British ground forces. "We are looking for opportunities to probe in, delve in and take out armor and infantry. But we're not firing directly into the city."
Before the war began, coalition planners had hoped to meet little resistance in Basra, envisioning cheering residents greeting the arrival of American and British liberators. For decades, Saddam, a Sunni Muslim, brutally oppressed the Shiite Muslims, who compose 65 percent of Iraq's 24 million people.
But whether that was a realistic expectation is not clear. In interviews, many Shiites in southern Iraq recalled the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when they revolted against Saddam but were given no aid by American forces, who stood by as Saddam's forces brutally crushed the rebellion.
Many say they are not convinced the United States can oust Saddam or create a democratic Iraq that will protect their rights.
"This can happen if the Americans are honest with their intentions," said Saffra Haider, 32, a Shiite farmer in the town of Safwan, just north of the Kuwaiti border. "If they're not, another similar regime might replace it."
"We are happy but also concerned the Americans may leave like last time," said Muhsen Salem, 24, another farmer. "Then where do we go?"
Others Shiites worry about the impact of Western attitudes in a post-Saddam Iraq. They question whether it is wise to align with the United States, which they fear could occupy Iraq for a long time.
"The people are afraid they'll lose their Islamic culture if Americans come in," said Saad Aziz, 19, a freshman in college. "When Saddam falls, there will be a lot of confusion. You don't know who'll take control."
Maj. Steve McQueenie, a British Army liaison with the U.S. 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq, said striking at the Baath party structure in southern Iraq was the reason that 100 members of the British Army's Black Watch Regiment fought their way into Az Zubayr on Monday night and seized the city's leading Baath party official from an office through which American prisoners of war were believed to have passed.
McQueenie said the troops did not expect to find captured U.S soldiers, but that the two- to three-hour battle was intended as a "psychological blow" against Saddam loyalists who have used the city as a platform for hit-and-run raids against allied forces.
British officials said that in addition to trying to spark a rebellion in Basra, military action there was necessary because of a growing humanitarian crisis spurred by the failure of the city's water plant.
Red Cross technicians granted safe conduct by the warring parties reached the Wafa-al-Quaid plant north of Basra, which provides most of the city's water. They hope to repair the plant as soon as possible.
Most of Basra has been without water since last Friday because of a power outage. On Saturday the Red Cross and local technicians found a temporary solution to restore water to about 30 percent to 40 percent of the city. The water provided is drinkable but not of very high quality, the Red Cross said.
Coalition forces hope to move humanitarian aid, mostly water and medical supplies, into the outskirts of Basra as soon as Thursday, provided the recently pacified port of Umm Qasr can receive the relief ship RFA Sir Galahad.
(Knight Ridder correspondent Juan Tamayo contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.