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Marines fight for Basra suburb

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NEAR BASRA (Reuters) - British forces fighting on the outskirts of Iraq's second city of Basra say they have captured an Iraqi general and killed a Republican Guard colonel during a battle for a suburb held by Iraqi paramilitaries.

With operations around Basra looking like a rehearsal for the battle for Baghdad, correspondents with Royal Marine commandos described Sunday's fierce fighting as a shift in tactics towards the southern city of 1.5 million people.

But a British military spokeswoman at the headquarters of the U.S.-led invasion force in Qatar said the success of the operation came at a price.

"We have suffered a number of casualties throughout the day in fighting around Basra. One soldier has been killed and a number yet to be determined have been wounded," she said.

Group Commander Al Lockwood, a British spokesman at war headquarters in Qatar, said senior Iraqi officers were mixed in with paramilitaries who clashed with the British Royal Marine commandos southeast of Basra.

"I don't know what unit (he was from). I do know that we have a general," Lockwood told Reuters earlier.

Five other Iraqis were captured in the same clash, and one Iraqi Republican Guard colonel was killed, he said.

British forces have surrounded Basra but not entered it, hoping it can be wrested from the control of President Saddam Hussein's supporters without the need to fight street by street.

Lockwood said he believed Republican Guard officers had been sent to help oversee resistance by the irregular forces there.

He said the paramilitaries and officers had attempted to leave the southeast of Basra and were heading west when 3 Commando Brigade of the Royal Marines attacked them.

BATTLE FOR BASRA?

Correspondents with the British forces said as many as 300 Iraqis were taken prisoner.

But Qatar-based satellite television channel al-Jazeera quoted Lieutenant-General Walid Hamid Tawfiq, an Iraqi field commander in the Basra region, as denying that a general had been captured and a colonel killed.

According to al-Jazeera, Tawfiq said four British soldiers were killed in the ongoing battles south of Basra.

Tim Butcher, of The Daily Telegraph, in a pooled report, described the operation as the start of the battle for Basra.

U.S. and British military planners had expected Iraq's Shi'ite Muslims in the south to repeat their 1991 revolt against Saddam's largely Sunni leadership.

"The planning assumption had always been that the advancing coalition forces would simply sweep past Basra and it would implode by itself," Butcher quoted Brigadier Jim Dutton, commander of 3 Commando Brigade, as saying.

But Saddam crushed the 1991 revolt and resentment at a lack of U.S. help lingers. Military planners are now focusing on persuading residents that Saddam's days in power are numbered in the hope this will turn them against the paramilitaries.

"It became apparent to me that we could do more than that, to get the message across that we can go in there and get rid of the regime," Dutton said.

"It could have a remarkable effect on the rest of the city and that is why the go-ahead was given for the operation."

Fighting has disrupted food and electricity supplies and forced many civilians to flee the city.

Reuters correspondent Michael Georgy quoted Basra residents on the edge of the city as saying life was going on as normal as under the firm rule of Saddam loyalists.

The residents said Iraqi army units were still operating and tanks were present. Pro-Saddam militia armed with rifles showed no sign of caving in to Western military firepower.

"Nothing has really changed in Basra. The government is in full control. They still completely rule," said Abu Jawad, standing near British tanks at a checkpoint outside the city.

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