- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2003

CAMP DOHA, Kuwait, March 28 (UPI) — British Prime Minister Tony Blair will seek approval from the Cabinet Friday to send another 5,000 British troops as reinforcements to Iraq after a request from U.S. President George W. Bush, British officers at the coalition command headquarters in Qatar have been told.

The British reinforcements will free the 120 Challenger-2 tanks of the 7th Armored Brigade, now besieging the southern city of Basra, to head north to join the main battle against the republican Guard south of Baghdad.

U.S. commanders, needing more armor in the battles against the Republican Guard, have been pressing their British allies for more support in the north. The 7th Armored Brigade would increase the current U.S. tank strength of the 3rd Division by about 60 percent.

The British, locked in a grueling battle around Basra, where they destroyed 14 Iraqi tanks Thursday, have been reluctant to send their tanks north unless they get reinforcements. But British sources said the chief of the General staff in London, Adm. Sir Michael Boyce, had already made contingency plans to send another brigade of reinforcements from an increasingly overstretched British army.

The battle of Basra raged Friday after British troops secured the objective of a key bridge across the river Tigris.

Iraqi troops shelled refugees who were fleeing the city on foot and in cars, according to British troops from the Black Watch, guarding the southwest edge of the city. They said "about a thousand" refugees were fleeing across a bridge over the Shatt al-Basra waterway, captured earlier in the week by British forces.

"Iraqi paramilitaries followed the refugees out of the city and began firing on them," said Group Captain Al Lockwood, the British military spokesman. "Fortunately the Black Watch were able to get between the refugees and the paramilitaries and return their fire and drive them off."

Meanwhile British intelligence officers said they now had evidence of a direct link between the Iraqi forces and the terrorist al Qaida network. They have learned that up to a dozen al Qaida volunteers were fighting alongside the pro-Baghdad guerilla forces in the town of As Zubaya outside Basra.

After a British raid on the Baath party headquarters in As Zubaya Wednesday to capture the local paramilitary leaders, Arabic-speaking intelligence officers interrogated the captured defenders. They were told that volunteers from al Qaida were taking part in the town's defense and helping to organize the pro-Baghdad resistance. Transcripts of the interrogations have been shared with U.S. military intelligence.

If an al Qaida role can be confirmed, and if al Qaida members can be captured, this would go a long way toward vindicating the Bush administration's claim of links between the Iraqi regime and the war on terrorism.

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