BASRA, Iraq—British forces in yellow Challenger tanks punched into the heart of Iraq's second-largest city Sunday and quickly seized control of key neighborhoods with little resistance from Saddam Hussein's fighters, before bedding down for the night under strict orders not to leave their vehicles.
Many residents of this besieged city of 1.3 million people joyously watched the Challenger tanks roll into their neighborhoods, shouting "No Saddam" and flashing thumbs-up signs. Others looted stores and warehouses in the chaos.
"I feel very happy because we have freedom for the first time," said Ali Ibrahim Hussein, 35, a teacher, as he watched a tank swivel its cannon down the Basra highway.
But others were less welcoming. In the Al Misaha section a Challenger tank was parked in front of a black-stone statue of the Iraqi poet Anastaha as a crowd of Iraqis gathered, gawking at their new visitors in the middle of Algeria Square.
"They've destroyed the place and they've entered a civilian area," said Haider Hamid, 23, a student. "We're not happy. Why are the civilian areas being hit? We have no water, no electricity."
It was impossible to verify whether any civilian areas have been destroyed by allied air strikes or if civilians were killed. The British forces have mounted a carefully orchestrated campaign, determined to avoid civilian deaths and destruction of the city's ancient infrastructure.
One British solider was killed by a booby trap, and residents reported heavy fighting in the city's Ashar neighborhood. Sporadic gunfire could be heard in the city and plumes of black smoke towered over the minarets and sand-colored buildings.
At Marine Combat Headquarters, officers said all but a sliver of Basra was in British hands. Upbeat officers said victory was near.
"Basra will be in our hands shortly," Maj. Gen. Robin V. Brims, commander of the 25,000 British troops in southern Iraq, was quoted as telling officers from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
As many as 1,000 fighters from the Saddam Fedayeen, the regular Iraqi army, and militia from Saddam's Baath party had mounted stiff resistance for nearly two weeks inside Basra. But hundreds have fled or simply slipped into the local population, and in recent days the British realized they were no longer a serious threat to a British advance.
Residents said heavy artillery and helicopter gunship strikes began at about 6 a.m. A short while later, the tanks rolled in.
They passed roads in commercial areas where Saddam's fighters had erected guard posts from piles of white sandbags. They passed portraits of Saddam on virtually every block, looking down from walls, buildings, and billboards.
When they found little resistance, the probe became a four-pronged assault as four battalions of 600 men each pushed into the heart of the city.
"It appeared the enemy was withdrawing so we kept punching through," said Maj. Simon Plummer, British Army liaison with IMEF. "Opportunity opened itself this morning and it was taken."
As many as 80 tanks, backed by Apache helicopter gunships, took part in the assault.
Ali Abdul Wahid left his fears inside his house and walked outside.
"My family and I were very scared during the war," said Wahid, 42, a laborer. "In the morning we went out to get food and then stayed home the rest of the day."
Some residents walked past U.S. soldiers and said "George Bush is number one."
But the coalition forces are not taking any chances with Basra residents. Many of Saddam's fighters are now lurking in civilian clothes, randomly attacking residents.
British soldiers are under orders not to get out of their tanks. "They may be crawling back and planning something," said Staff Sgt. Bob Lavigne of St.Louis, a U.S. psychological operations specialist whose unit is working with the British.
"Or they may have melted away into the sunset."
On street corners around the city, Lavigne's units played taped messages in Arabic from loudspeakers mounted on Humvees to win the trust of Basra residents.
Many Shiites here remember when they rose up against Saddam after the 1991 Persian Gulf War thinking the U.S. would help them. Instead, the Iraqi military brutally crushed them, slaughtering thousands.
"We know that you are worried from the war," the message blared. "We will not stop until we rid you of the Saddam Hussein regime. And that won't be long."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-BASRA