BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) - British troops battled gunmen in the volatile Iraqi city of Basra on Tuesday after coming under fire during a routine search operation, the British military said.
“Ten of the enemy were hit. I don’t know whether they were wounded or killed. There was a substantial exchange of gunfire,” British military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Kevin Stratford-Wright said.
He said gunmen had opened fire on the British force from alleyways and rooftops with machinegun fire and several rocket-propelled grenades. The soldiers had returned fire from machineguns mounted on armoured personnel carriers.
Iraqi police said two gunmen were wounded and two arrested in the fighting in Basra’s southwestern Qibla district. One policeman was also hurt.
The clash in the city, the hub of Iraq’s main oil fields, comes less than a week after a roadside bomb killed four British soldiers and their civilian interpreter.
Prime Minister Tony Blair said in February Britain would begin withdrawing a quarter of its 7,000 troops — who are stationed mainly in and around Basra — in the coming months, paving the way for Iraqis to take full control of security.
While Basra has been more stable than Baghdad to the north, rival Shi’ite factions are fighting a turf war for control of its oil revenues. The city is also menaced by criminal gangs.
The commander of British forces said last month the greatest obstacle to Iraqis taking control was the perception that the region was lawless, fuelled by the high number of attacks on British troops.
At least 140 British soldiers have been killed in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.