BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) - British forces moved closer to Basra on Sunday, witnesses said, but a spokesman said they had no plans yet to retake Iraq’s second city, scene of a government crackdown on Shi‘ite fighters.
Witnesses said British troops in eight to 10 armoured vehicles had set up a checkpoint at the Zubair bridge south of the city and were checking cars heading into Basra.
A British military spokesman confirmed British units were moving closer to the city to support Iraqis on the ground.
“It’s been closer to the city than in recent days, and that is in direct support of an Iraqi operation,” Major Tom Holloway said by telephone. “They are not inside the city.”
Britain withdrew its forces from Basra in December. A remaining contingent of 4,100 troops had largely kept near a base outside the city during the past six days while government troops battled militia loyal to cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
“We’ve had ground forces outside the wire assisting Iraqi forces,” Holloway said. “As yet there is no intent to push British armour into the city.”
The U.S. military has confirmed it has special forces operating alongside Iraqi troops in what began as an Iraqi-led operation. They have called in air strikes from U.S. warplanes.
Holloway said British forces had fired artillery in support of Iraqi ground forces on Saturday for the first time since the fighting broke out on Tuesday.
Reporting by Aref Mohammed in Basra and Peter Graff in Baghdad; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Catherine Evans