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REBUILDING IRAQ

3 British soldiers killed in ambush

BAGHDAD -- Gunmen attacked a two-vehicle British convoy yesterday in the southern city of Basra, killing three soldiers in the second-deadliest assault on British troops since hostilities were formally declared finished May 1.

The attack, coming after riots in Basra earlier this month, suggested that the postwar violence in Iraq is spreading beyond Saddam Hussein's former strongholds in Baghdad and its environs. Basra, dominated by anti-Hussein Shi'ite Muslims, has been generally quiet since the war ended, but residents have grown increasingly frustrated over the dearth of basic services such as water, gas, and electricity.

Tensions also rose elsewhere in the country yesterday. In the north, near Kirkuk, US forces said they fatally shot two people after trying to break up a clash between Kurds and Turkmens. The fighting reportedly broke out after Kurds destroyed a reopened Turkmen Islamic shrine. Three Turks and five Kurds were killed and 13 people wounded in the fighting between the groups, US military officials told the Associated Press.

In Baghdad, the British Embassy has evacuated its staff, citing a "credible threat" of an attack after the bombing Tuesday at the UN office.

British officials said in a statement that the Basra-based convoy was on a "routine mission when it was ambushed by gunmen from a pickup." A fourth British soldier was injured in the assault, the worst attack on British troops since six soldiers were killed in the southern town of Majar al-Kabir in June.

As of yesterday, the British government has reported 48 deaths since the war began. The American military says 273 US soldiers have died since the beginning of military operations. Denmark's military has reported one death.

Coalition officials attribute the escalating violence to former Hussein loyalists and foreign terrorists bent on destabilizing Iraq and preventing the US and British-led coalition from succeeding. L. Paul Bremer III, the interim administrator of Iraq, said the series of recent attacks would not deter the coalition's mission.

"I've never hidden the fact that we have security problems in Iraq," Bremer said at a news conference yesterday. He attributed the spate of sabotage incidents and attacks that culminated with the UN bombing to "ex-regime extremists" and foreign terrorists, saying they marked a "grim week" for Baghdad.

He also pledged that electricity distribution would be restored to prewar levels by the end of September, providing that further sabotage did not derail the project. Another power line was damaged by saboteurs Friday night, he said.

In interviews earlier last week, many Basra residents said they would turn quickly against the British troops if electricity and water access is not restored soon.

"All the Basra people believed that when the Saddam Hussein regime collapsed and the Americans and British came, they would bring everything," said Imadi Shaker, a 29-year-old police officer. "Now, it's been months, and it's worse and worse and worse. We have nothing. Basra people have no hope."

Ibrahim Abdul, 49, acknowledged that the power situation had improved somewhat in the past three months but said it was inadequate. "If they give us services, things will be fine, but if not, there will be more trouble," he said.

Many residents, especially Shi'ite leaders, also are bristling at the developing government in Baghdad, which they say is a creation not of Iraqi people, but US interests. "We are looking for elections, not appointments," a sign on a local mosque read.

Seeking to keep tempers cool in the stifling August heat, British troops have taken pains to establish warm relations with Iraqis, troops and Basra residents say. While US soldiers are derided for what some Iraqis consider aggressive and overly defensive behavior, British troops are regarded by many as more culturally sensitive and reluctant to use force.

"We recognize the importance of dialogue and continuing chats with the locals," said Major Ian Poole, a spokesman at the British military installation in an unfinished Hussein palace in Basra. "Much effort has been put in. What we try to do is not promise things, but show them what has happened" to help them, he said.

Many Basra residents, even those who fault the British for the city's electricity woes, say the British soldiers treat them well.

A British commander meets weekly for a "security council" strategy session that includes not only British troops but also tribal family leaders, Poole said. The British contingent's chaplains meet periodically with local imams to hear the concerns of religious leaders, and British troops do not conduct routine searches of houses, he said.

Unlike US troops, who display a heavily armed and highly visible presence in Baghdad, British troops are hardly seen on Basra streets.

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