— By David Fox
NEAR BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraqi forces fired mortar bombs near
some 1,000 civilians waiting to cross a bridge leading out of the
southern Iraqi city of Basra, seriously hurting one woman, a British
officer said on Friday.
No-one was believed to have died in the attack, but one young
woman was seriously wounded and several others injured, Captain
Robert Sandford with the 7th Armored Brigade told Reuters near
"It would seem there are several small groups of Iraqi militia
using mortar plates on the back of small, mobile vehicles. They
landed around eight or nine mortars near the group (of civilians),"
he told Reuters.
Sandford said British forces could not return fire immediately
because it was hard to locate the attackers.
British tanks were positioned near the bridge and it was
impossible to say what was the target of the Iraqi attack, which
took place at around 10 a.m. local time (2 a.m. EST) on Friday.
British military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ronnie McCourt at
war headquarters in Qatar said Iraqi paramilitaries targeted 2,000
civilians trying to flee Iraq's second city. It was not immediately
clear if he was talking about the same incident.
"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 machineguns," he said, adding that British forces there
were trying to help evacuate casualties.
A steady flow of people were trying to leave the besieged city,
but it was not a massive outflow. For every two people trying to
leave, one was looking to get back in.
British military intelligence reported earlier this week that
Basra's mainly Shi'ite population may have started an uprising
against the ruling Baath Party, but officials later played down the
report of revolt, speaking instead of unrest.
The city is surrounded by a virtual ring of U.S. and British
tanks, artillery and armored personnel carriers and the United
Nations has expressed alarm at a humanitarian crisis in Basra, which
has been short of water and power for days.
Red Cross officials said on Thursday they had partially restored
water, but residents said it was still hard to find.
U.S.-led forces had been hoping the Shi'ite south would welcome
them as liberators after decades of discrimination and persecution
by President Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated government.
In the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, Shi'ites rose against Saddam,
expecting support from the international forces which ended Iraq's
invasion of Kuwait. But that support never came and Saddam brutally
crushed the uprising.
Islam is divided between the dominant Sunni sect and Shi'ism. In
Iraq, the situation is reversed with Shi'ites accounting for an
estimated 60 percent of the population.
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