British Army Col. Chris Vernon, spokesman for the British land forces in Iraq, describes one possible plan for how coalition forces may seize the town of Basra during a news conference Tuesday in Kuwait City.

British Army Col. Chris Vernon, spokesman for the British land forces in Iraq, describes one possible plan for how coalition forces may seize the town of Basra during a news conference Tuesday in Kuwait City. (David Josar / S&S)

KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait — Allied forces hope their plan to control Basra, the city just north of the port town of Umm Qasr, can be a blueprint for how soldiers and Marines take Baghdad.

Troops in Basra are trying to drive a wedge between Iraqi citizens and members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party and its militia of irregulars. Leaders hope the rift will be the catalyst the Iraqis need to revolt and remove Hussein from power.

Allied forces have been attempting such a coup in Basra by making limited strikes of Baath Party buildings and capturing its leaders, avoiding civilian casualties and providing humanitarian aid.

“If the [Iraqi citizens] start taking up arms against the Baath Party members and its irregulars, that’s great,” said British Army Col. Chris Vernon, spokesman for British land forces. “But they’ve lived in fear for years … that could take some time.”

Already British forces have destroyed the Baath Party’s headquarters in Basra, killed about 20 Iraqi fighters, and captured the city’s top political leader, said Vernon, who spent Tuesday in Basra.

The Baath leader, who Vernon would not name, is being interrogated.

British officers said Wednesday that fighting had broken out between different groups of Iraqis in the city. They said the uprising became so threatening that the militiamen fired mortars to try to suppress it. British forces then silenced the Iraqi mortar positions with an artillery barrage, said Lt. Col. Ronnie McCourt, a spokesman for British forces.

Allied forces have delayed entering the city of 1 million because they know the fighting would be more dangerous — for both themselves and civilians — than in the Iraqi desert where U.S. and British troops have moved freely and made progress toward Baghdad.

“We aren’t going to fire into the city. We can’t risk collateral damage even though we’ve been fired at from the center of the city,” he said.

Basra also was reported to be facing a humanitarian crisis. Water and electricity have been cut since March 22. While British and international Red Cross officials said Tuesday that 40 percent of Basra’s water was up and running, they hoped to bring in more in the coming days.

Relief agencies warned that children in Basra were threatened with disease from unsafe water. Vernon said a British ship is waiting near Umm Quasar to bring in water, food and medical supplies.

For days, British forces have engaged in running tank and artillery battles with Iraqi forces on the outskirts of Basra. Iraqi forces inside the city have reportedly been using civilians as human shields, British officials said, leaving the British no choice but to risk the possible urban warfare they had been hoping to avoid.

“It’s a legitimate military target,” Vernon said. “We have to eradicate this military capability in Basra.”

Basra, a once-graceful, now-decayed city of waterways and date palms, is the main city in southern Iraq. Its population is predominantly Shiite Muslim.

Twelve years ago, after the Persian Gulf War, it was the scene of a Shiite uprising against Hussein’s Sunni Muslim-dominated government. The revolt was brutally suppressed.

During Operation Iraqi Freedom, much of the Iraqi military tactics and reactions had been expected. Coalition forces have tactical and superiority in the open areas, Vernon said, and the Iraqis have been easily defeated.

“We can do that pretty much what we want with impunity,” he said.

But engagement around cities has made the fight more challenging.

Some tactics by Iraqi fighting forces have been surprising, Vernon said, as has the resiliency of what he referred to as Iraqi “irregulars.”

Iraqi tactics have included switching into civilian clothes, blending in with non-military personnel and staging fake surrenders and then firing upon allied troops, using other people as shields.

“It’s a tactic. They’re not stupid,” he said. “The irregular elements [are] greater than we predicted and their resolve is greater than we had predicted.”

Vernon was riled when asked to provide number of how many Iraqis his British troops had killed.

“We don’t add them up,” he said. “We kill them. We bury them. We take them prisoners of war.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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