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British troops raid police station in south Iraq

Two US soldiers die in bomb blast

An Iraqi inspected a wrecked police vehicle yesterday after British soldiers raided a police station in the city of Basra. (nabil al-jurani/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

BAGHDAD -- Backed by tanks, British soldiers raided a police station in the southern city of Basra yesterday, killing seven gunmen in an effort to stop renegade Iraqi officers from executing their prisoners, the British military said.

After the British stormed the Basra police station, they removed the prisoners, who showed evidence of torture, then evacuated the building before blowing it up.

Pro-insurgent TV station highlights US losses. A19

The operation showed how closely aligned some police units are with militias and death, and the challenges coalition forces face as they transfer authority for security to Iraqis.

Also yesterday, two US soldiers were killed in a bomb explosion southwest of Baghdad, the US military said. Their deaths brought the total toll since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to 2,974, one more than the number of deaths in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, according to an Associated Press count.

In Baghdad, police found 40 bodies, apparent victims of sectarian violence. A car bomb exploded beside a market and a suicide bomber struck a bus in separate attacks that killed 14 civilians and wounded at least 33.

In the Basra raid, the British set out to arrest officers with the station's serious crimes unit who were suspected of involvement with Shi'ite death squads. Seven members of the rogue police unit were apprehended three days ago in other raids, said a British spokeswoman, Royal Navy Lieutenant Jenny Saleh.

"We had intelligence to indicate that the serious crimes unit would execute its prisoners in the coming days, so we decided to intervene," Saleh said.

British troops were fired on as they approached the station and their return fire killed seven gunmen, said Major Charlie Burbridge, a British spokesman.

British and Iraqi forces transferred all 76 prisoners at the station to another facility in downtown Basra, he said. Some prisoners had "classic torture injuries" such as crushed hands and feet, cigarette and electrical burns, and gunshot wounds in the knees, Burbridge said.

The British demolished the building in an effort to disband the unit. "We identified the serious crimes unit as, frankly, too far gone," Burbridge said. "We just had to get rid of it."

The unit's members, he alleged, were involved in tribal and political feuds in southern Iraq, which is mostly Shi'ite. They were not, he said, engaged in the kind of sectarian reprisal killings that have terrorized mixed neighborhoods of Baghdad.

Most of Britain's 7,200 troops in Iraq are based in the Basra area.

Mohammed al-Askari, a spokesman for Iraq's Defense Ministry, said the operation was coordinated with the Iraqi government.

US Army Lieutenant General Martin Dempsey, who is in charge of training Iraqi forces, said in Washington last week that efforts were underway to weed out Iraqi national police believed to be sympathetic to the militias.

Up to a quarter are thought to be aligned with the militias, which are engaged in sectarian violence.

The establishment of a viable Iraqi police force is vital to the US-led coalition's goal of handing responsibility for security to Iraqis, so foreign troops can return home.

In another sign of lawlessness in Basra, gunmen yesterday robbed $740,000 from a bank about half a mile from the raided police station. The car bomb in Baghdad, meanwhile, struck a mostly Shi'ite district to the east that attracts crowds of shoppers and laborers looking for work.

In another part of eastern Baghdad, a suicide bomber exploded a minibus, killing three people, and a suicide bomber killed two policemen at a university entrance in Ramadi .

The US command also had announced that an American soldier and a Marine had died Sunday from combat wounds suffered in Anbar Province.

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