AZ ZUBAYR BRIDGE, Iraq—Iraqi troops fired machine guns and artillery shells at several hundred refugees fleeing Basra on Sunday, triggering a shootout with British soldiers that pinned down terrified refugees in the crossfire.
Mothers in black Islamic garments clutched crying babies to their chests. Young men tightly held the hands of their grandmothers. And an old, sun-weathered man with a cane briefly looked to the heavens and yelled, "Allah. God help me."
British forces on the outskirts of Basra are facing an Iraqi guerrilla campaign that is dragging them into an urban, low-tech war—where civilians are human shields and the enemy is not easily distinguishable. It's similar to what coalition forces could face in Baghdad, British commanders said.
"Without a doubt," said Capt. Sam Debbit of the 1st Battalion Irish Guards. "Civilians caught in the middle is a scenario we're certainly going to see more often."
More than 1,000 Iraqi fighters are holed up in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city. British commanders who control this bridge, about six miles from Basra, said Iraqi militias cruise the area in pickup trucks mounted with machine guns. The militia members use cell phones to call in sniper attacks and mortar strikes from a factory north of the bridge and a nearby shantytown.
But their most potent weapon is their ability to coerce people and melt into the civilian population, the commanders said.
Some British soldiers believed that Sunday's attack was an attempt by Iraqi troops to sow confusion so that some of their men could slip past the British checkpoint.
"It's impossible to identify who is the normal citizen," said Maj. Peter MacMullen of the 1st Battalion Irish Guards. "The person I want to stop is the lunatic who will go to our rear areas and shoot us up."
As bullets and shells flew over their heads, the refugees huddled together in fear. Plumes of black smoke rose behind them as British Challenger tanks fired back at the Iraqi fighters a half-mile away.
When the Iraqi paramilitary men returned another artillery round, the refugees got up and flooded toward the British checkpoint, screaming and crying.
British soldiers tried to stop young men, fearing they could be Saddam's fighters.
One man implored a soldier to let him pass. He pointed to an old woman who was permitted to go through and said: "Mother, mother."
Another man began to cry as his wife and child were ushered through. His wife ran back, braving the heavy gunfire. She grabbed his hand, tugging him past the soldiers.
The soldiers did stop many men ages 18 to 40—prime fighting years—to search them. Most were allowed through to join their families.
In other parts of Iraq, coalition soldiers are scrutinizing anyone with a cell phone or black boots, which are commonly worn by Iraqi soldiers. U.S. and British troops also are suspicious of Iraqis who display their affluence: loyalty to Saddam usually is paid in gifts.
"Brand-new cars coming up to the checkpoints with drivers with fancy cell phones who bully soldiers, we arrest them," said British Capt. Richard Coates of the 1st Fusiliers Regiment.
The coalition soldiers have other concerns as well. Paramilitary forces known as Saddam's Fedayeen are forcibly recruiting young Iraqis in Basra, said refugees and British military officials. And Saddam's Baath Party officials still intimidate ordinary Iraqis in areas under coalition control.
In one recent incident near this bridge, a man walked up to soldiers and said he needed to return to Basra quickly. When asked why, he replied that he needed to go back to fire a missile at the checkpoint because the Fedayeen had threatened to kill his family.
The British soldiers refused but the man sneaked through anyway. He was later shot by British troops when he tried to attack them, MacMullen recalled.
British commanders also worry that Iraqi fighters are smuggling weapons and ammunition into Basra. On Sunday, dozens of trucks carrying tomatoes to sell at market flowed through the checkpoint. Soldiers checked several of them by shoving their guns into the mounds of tomatoes.
Inside a white pickup truck, they found a thick brick of money hidden in a compartment. They promptly detained the driver and ordered him to join three men sitting cross-legged, their hands clasped behind their necks. Two British soldiers pointed their guns at the men.
"They told me I was not a farmer because my hands don't looks like a farmer's hands and I wore an expensive watch," said Ali Zein al-Abdin, 38. "I'm a farm owner and that's why my hands are like that."
Despite the heavy security at checkpoints, several British commanders said the only way to stop the guerrilla campaign is to go after the Iraqi militias on their own turf, even if hand-to-hand combat and door-to-door searches are necessary.
"In the future, we have to go into Basra," said MacMullen. "It's the key to success. Otherwise we're just watching from the sidelines and getting shot at."
But urban warfare can exact a heavy price. British officials, concerned about heavy casualties among civilians as well as coalition troops, say they will take their time with Basra.
"If they go in, it will be a bloodbath," warned Aris al Darraj, a Basra resident. "There will be a lot of casualties. The Fedayeen are very good at street war."
Minutes before, British soldiers allowed a group of young men to pass the bridge, but only after making them wait for a few hours and searching them.
"Go Saddam," many of them yelled as they ran toward Basra. "No America."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+BASRA