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Iraqis protest British raid freeing soldiers

Top officials say ties unharmed

BASRA, Iraq -- Hundreds of residents and police officers filled the streets in this southern city yesterday, shouting and pumping their fists to condemn British forces for raiding a jail and freeing two of their security officials two days earlier.

At least 200 officers who work at the police station and jail damaged Monday during the British raid marched through the streets, calling for the city's police chief to be fired and for the security officials to be returned to Iraqi jurisdiction.

British forces raided the jail to free two undercover soldiers who were detained by Iraqi security forces following a firefight on Monday. In the raid, British armored vehicles crushed the walls of the jail before troops rescued the men.

The British said the men were held by a militia group who had gained custody of them from police.

But Interior Minister Bayan Jabor told the BBC that the men had never left police custody, and were not handed to militants.

The Iraqi government said in a statement there was no crisis with Britain, but senior Iraqi officials have castigated the raid. Basra's provincial governor called it a ''barbaric act."

In London, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari of Iraq met with Defense Secretary John Reid of Britain to discuss the incident. The two told reporters diplomatic ties had not been harmed.

''It will not affect the relationship between Iraq and Britain," said Reid, who is under pressure over the deployment of 8,500 troops and has faced calls for a withdrawal timetable.

Asked if British troops should immediately withdraw, Reid referred the question to Jaafari, who said they should not.

Reid said Britain had not changed its plan to keep its troops in Iraq until Iraqi security forces were strong enough to maintain security without them.

''We will not cut and run. We will not leave the job half done," Reid said. ''We will stand by Iraq when times are tough and we will be a committed friend, not a fair weather friend."

British soldiers described yesterday how they bailed out of a burning tank after it was attacked by a mob throwing bricks, stones, and gasoline bombs during the Basra unrest.

Speaking from his army base in Iraq, George Long described how his Warrior light tank was surrounded by angry Iraqis.

''The crowd grew more hostile, and moved closer to the Warriors," he told Sky Television News.

''They were throwing petrol bombs. . . . Our hatches were open and one of the petrol bombs unfortunately hit the top and came in on top of me and my gunner.

''I had to get out because basically it was in flames, on fire, so . . . I got out and luckily enough, someone" put out the flames.

Tank driver Ryon Burton jumped through the fire to escape.

''I couldn't breathe at all because of the fumes that were coming through," he said. ''I just needed to get out, just think about my life basically."

Jaafari said he did not know the details about the raid, but added an investigation had been launched.

Iraq's national security adviser, Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, said the investigation would focus on whether the two British soldiers were handed over to a militia group and whether they were found in an annex to the jail or a private house.

Basra, a mainly Shi'ite Muslim city, has experienced a surge in militia activity, with armed Shi'ite factions vying for influence in the security forces and the local council.

The militias are also believed to have carried out attacks on British troops, three of whom have been killed by roadside bombs this month, and on journalists exposing their activities.

Iraqi authorities admitted that insurgents had infiltrated the police and other security forces in Basra and elsewhere.

Britain's Colonel Bill Dunham, chief of staff for multinational forces in Basra, also pointed to security force infiltration as a major problem. ''It is something that affects the Iraqi police across Iraq as a whole," he told BBC Radio.

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