- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 29, 2003

CAMP AS SALIYA, Qatar Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's paramilitary enforcers turned their guns on thousands of Iraqi civilians attempting to flee the besieged city of Basra yesterday, prompting U.S. air attacks that destroyed a two-story building where the paramilitaries were believed to be meeting.

The civilians attacked yesterday by the irregulars had been attempting to leave the city in search of food and water.

There was no immediate word on casualties from the attack by a pair of F-15E Strike Eagles, targeting the Saddam loyalists.

"A couple of thousand Iraqi civilians trying to get out of Basra to the north and west are being fired on by paramilitaries with both mortars and machine guns," British military spokesman Lt. Col. Ronnie McCourt said at the allied command center in Doha, Qatar.

In what appeared to be a similar but separate incident on the main road south out of Basra, Iraqi forces fired mortar rounds near 1,000 civilians waiting to cross a bridge, seriously hurting one woman, a British officer in Basra said.

"Some civilians were forced into trucks, and others were forced under gunfire to go back into the city," the officer said.

British troops killed three Iraqi paramilitaries as they fired at civilians from a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

However, the British 7th Armored Brigade, known since World War II as the Desert Rats, was not able to silence or destroy the mortar positions for fear of inflicting additional civilian casualties in the city.

The United Nations has expressed alarm at a humanitarian crisis in Basra, which has been short of water and power for days and is ringed by U.S. and British tanks, artillery and armored personnel carriers.

Red Cross officials said on Thursday that they had partially restored water, but residents said it was still hard to find.

U.S. officials said yesterday that water was flowing to about 50 percent of the city.

Col. McCourt said British forces were trying to help evacuate casualties from the incidents north and west of Basra.

Another British military spokesman said two groups of civilians had tried to flee.

"The first group made it. When the second group came out, paramilitaries came out and mortared them and machine-gunned them and drove them back into town," he said.

Col. Al Lockwood, the main spokesman for British forces in Qatar, said the British Black Watch 1st Battalion tried to intervene once the paramilitaries began their attack.

"This was witnessed by elements of the Black Watch … who placed themselves between the fleeing civilians and the paramilitaries and commenced firing," Col. Lockwood said.

"The paramilitaries are attempting to keep people in the bounds of Basra," he said. "There is a great deal of coercion, particularly among the young male population by the Ba'ath Party and these paramilitaries to make them fight for the regime."

In another development, Iraqi regular soldiers with no combat training in armored warfare were being forced to drive tanks and other vehicles on breakouts from the city that are tantamount to suicide missions, said Air Marshal Brian Burridge, Britain's top commander here.

"Ba'ath Party militias go to a neighborhood, round up the existing soldiery, put them in their tanks and say, 'Go that way.' "

He said the inexperienced soldiers in the tanks and armored vehicles "cannot maneuver, have no intelligence and don't know which way to go."

The British have called in air power twice to wipe out the moving armor. In one clash Thursday, Challenger 2 tanks of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards knocked out 14 Soviet-built T55 tanks going south out of Basra.

Allied forces had hoped that a swift collapse of Basra through a popular uprising against Saddam would set the tone for revolt across the southern cities and towns where Shi'ite Muslims are the majority.

Shi'ites in the South have long mistrusted Saddam's regime, which is dominated by the rival Sunni Muslim sect.

But Saddam loyalists have apparently been going house to house warning of dire consequences for disloyalty.

British military intelligence reported earlier this week that Basra's mainly Shi'ite population may have started an uprising, but officials later played down the report of revolt, speaking instead of unrest.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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