British troops pull out of al-Sadr's office in Basra

Saturday, September 18th 2004, 10:50 am
By: News On 6

BASRA, Iraq (AP) _ British troops withdrew on Saturday from radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's main office in the southern city of Basra a day after occupying the building and seizing an arms cache in fighting that killed three and wounded five, the British military and police said.

Explosions and gunfire again echoed across the city Saturday before the soldiers withdrew from the offices in the city center and handed over the keys to local authorities, said British military spokesman Capt. Donald Francis.

``We handed the building ... over to the police,'' he said. ``For the British troops this operation is complete.''

Police and national guardsmen immediately took over the building Saturday pending a decision by the provincial governor on whether to give it back to al-Sadr's supporters, Basra police chief Brig. Gen. Mohammed Kadhim al-Ali.

During Friday's raid on the offices, British troops seized a large arms cache after fighting that left three dead and five wounded, including a British soldier, officials said.

The British withdrawal came just hours after al-Sadr's top representative in the city threatened to order al-Mahdi Army militiamen to attack oil fields if British troops did not immediately pull out of the building.

``The al-Mahdi Army is ready to carry out these military operations against British forces, oil fields and oil pipelines in Basra,'' Sheik Asaad al-Basri said. He also demanded the British return the seized weapons and warned al-Mahdi militiamen were mobilized for a fight.

A British military spokesman said his troops would not return the confiscated weapons, adding that they took control of the offices in self -defense after al-Sadr's official threats.

Al-Sadr, a firebrand cleric who commands widespread support among Iraq's poorer Shiites, led a three-week uprising against U.S. forces last month in the holy city of Najaf that left thousands dead.

Tensions have been mounting recently in Basra between the militia and British troops, who raided a smaller al-Sadr office in the city a couple of days ago.