- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 7, 2006

BAGHDAD — A British military helicopter apparently was hit by a missile yesterday and crashed in Basra, triggering a confrontation in which jubilant Iraqis pelted British troops with stones, hurled firebombs and shouted slogans in support of a radical Shi’ite cleric.

Iraqi police said four British crew members died in the crash in the southern city, and four Iraqi adults and a child were reported killed during the ensuing melee when Shi’ite gunmen exchanged fire with British soldiers who hurried to the scene. About 30 civilians were injured.

Reminiscent of other outbursts of Iraqis cheering the deaths of foreigners, the chaotic scene was widely shown on Iraqi state television and on the Al Jazeera satellite station.

The violence underscored discontent over the presence of foreign soldiers that has been growing among Iraq’s majority Shi’ites even though they have generally steered clear of the Sunni Arab-dominated insurgency.

Police Capt. Mushtaq Khazim said the helicopter went down in a vacant lot between two houses after it was struck by a shoulder-fired missile — a weapon widely available among insurgent groups and armed militias in Iraq. He said the four crew members were killed.

British soldiers with armored vehicles rushed to the site and were met by a hail of stones from a crowd of at least 250, many of them teenagers, who jumped for joy and raised their fists as thick smoke rose from the wreckage.

As many as three armored vehicles were set on fire, apparently with gasoline bombs and a rocket-propelled grenade, but the troops inside escaped unhurt, witnesses said.

The crowd chanted “we are all soldiers of al-Sayed,” a reference to radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, an ardent foe of foreign troops in Iraq.

Calm returned by nightfall as Iraqi authorities imposed a curfew and hundreds of Iraqi police and soldiers set up checkpoints and patrolled the streets, residents said. Sporadic rocket fire could be heard throughout Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city.

The British Defense Ministry confirmed only that there were “casualties” in the afternoon crash, but refused to give a figure or discuss the cause.

A British spokeswoman, Capt. Kelly Goodall, said British soldiers who responded came “under attack by a variety of weapons, including small-arms fire, petrol bombs, as well as blast bombs and stone.”

She said the soldiers fired “a small number of live rounds” in self-defense. She said there were some minor injuries among the troops on the ground, but gave no details.

In London, Britain’s newly appointed defense secretary, Des Browne, said he was “deeply saddened” by the death of British soldiers, “which reminds us of the risks our servicemen and women face every day” in Iraq.

The crash came at a tough time for British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who angered many Britons, including members of his own Labor Party, by his support for the war. On Friday, Mr. Blair carried out a sweeping overhaul of his Cabinet after Labor suffered a drubbing in local elections, drawing calls for the prime minister to set a firm timetable for leaving office.

Tensions have been worsening in southern Iraq, where Britain has about 8,000 soldiers and other countries also have troops.

Three Polish soldiers were wounded by a bomb yesterday in the mostly Shi’ite city of Diwaniyah. On April 27, a roadside bomb killed three Italian soldiers and one Romanian near Nasariyah, another Shi’ite city in the south.

Trouble in the largely Shi’ite region is in part a result of the growing influence of Sheik al-Sadr, who led two armed uprisings against U.S.-led forces in 2004.

In violence elsewhere, a suicide bomber wearing an Iraqi army uniform entered an Iraqi base in ousted dictator Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit and detonated an explosives belt, killing three officers, said the Iraqi Defense Ministry’s spokesman, Maj. Gen. Abdul-Aziz Mohammed Jassim.

The U.S. command also announced that an American soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad on Friday.

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