Helicopter Crash Sparks Clash in Iraq

British troops rush to the scene of a British helicopter crash in Basra, in southern Iraq. Iraqi officials said the chopper appeared to have been hit by a rocket.
British troops rush to the scene of a British helicopter crash in Basra, in southern Iraq. Iraqi officials said the chopper appeared to have been hit by a rocket. (By Nabil Al-jurani -- Associated Press)
By Nelson Hernandez and Omar Fekeiki
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 7, 2006

BAGHDAD, May 6 -- A British helicopter crashed Saturday morning in the southern city of Basra, touching off a confrontation in which hundreds of cheering Shiite demonstrators pelted British soldiers with gasoline bombs.

The British Defense Ministry released a statement confirming that soldiers had been killed in the incident, but a military spokesman would not specify how many until their next of kin could be notified. Iraqi firefighters and police officials said they pulled four bodies from the wreckage, news services reported.

A British military spokesman, Maj. Sebastian Muntz, said the area was cordoned off by British soldiers and Iraqi police and that the troops were investigating the cause of the crash. Iraqi police officials quoted by news services said the helicopter appeared to have been hit by a rocket.

A witness who gave only his first name, Mohammed, for fear of retaliation, said in an interview that he had seen a rocket fired from an alley in the nearby Tamimiya neighborhood before the crash.

British armored vehicles and ambulances that rushed to the scene were soon surrounded by a crowd of supporters of the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The al-Jazeera television network broadcast images of demonstrators pumping their fists in the air as they chanted, "Victory to the Mahdi Army!" -- a Shiite militia loyal to Sadr.

British troops attempted to regain control of a street in the crowded, run-down neighborhood, which was filled with smoke from burning tires. Muntz said people in the crowd lobbed Molotov cocktails and makeshift grenades and that a smattering of gunfire could be heard. No soldiers were reported hurt.

Police said four Iraqi adults and a child were killed in the clashes and 30 civilians were injured, the Associated Press reported.

Other images broadcast on Iraqi television showed a British soldier firing his rifle into the air in an apparent attempt to quell the unrest. Other footage showed a group of people attempting to drag away an Iraqi man who had been wounded or killed. It was not clear how he had been hurt.

"It's been quite a volatile situation down there in Basra this afternoon," Muntz said. "It's probably too early to confirm what's happened there."

The incident illustrated the growing unruliness in Basra, which has experienced little of the sectarian strife that has affected other parts of the country. Basra's predominantly Shiite Muslim population generally opposed Saddam Hussein, and the city has been relatively tranquil since the U.S.-led invasion of the country in 2003. Yet violence has escalated as rival militia groups affiliated with Shiite political parties fight for influence.

Residents of Basra -- Iraq's second-largest city -- have also had an increasingly adversarial relationship with the British army, which has occupied the area since the invasion. The 8,000 British troops have repeatedly clashed with Sadr's militia, which is stridently opposed to the presence of foreign soldiers in Iraq. The British also attempted to disarm Iraqi police units earlier this year, arguing that they have been infiltrated by militia members.

Residents were enraged by the discovery in February of a video from 2004 showing British troops beating an Iraqi teenager. The governor of Basra province broke off relations with the British force after the video became public, but reestablished them in recent weeks. Prior to the helicopter crash, 104 British troops had died in Iraq.

The violence Saturday was not confined to Basra, as insurgents continued their assault on the Iraqi military. A suicide bomber blew himself up at an Iraqi army base in Tikrit, about 90 miles north of Baghdad, killing three Iraqi soldiers, said Brig. Gen. Abdulaziz Muhammed Jasim, a spokesman for the Iraqi Defense Ministry.

The bomber, dressed in an Iraqi army uniform, made his way into the base of the 4th Iraqi Army Division and exploded his explosive belt amid a crowd of soldiers, Jasim said. The attack came three days after 17 men were killed at a police recruiting station in Fallujah.

"This is a very normal scene now," Jasim said. "The terrorists realize that people are willing to join the security forces, and therefore they want to intimidate them."

At least 12 other Iraqis died in bombings and shootings across the country Saturday, according to police and news reports, and Baghdad police discovered the bodies of 13 people who had been kidnapped and killed.

A roadside bomb also killed a U.S. soldier traveling in Baghdad on Friday, the military said in a statement Saturday.

Special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim and Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad, Hassan Shammari in Baqubah and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.

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