A jeering mob threw stones at the bodies of a British crew whose helicopter was shot down in the southern Iraqi city of Basra yesterday.
At least four servicemen were feared dead in the crash, which was followed by clashes between British soldiers from the 20th Armoured Brigade and supporters of the Mahdi army of Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shi’ite cleric.
At least four Iraqi militiamen were reported to have been killed. Witnesses spoke of 31 civilians being injured in exchanges of fire as the British forces tried to secure the area around the crash site.
A police captain said an Iraqi child had also died. Two Warrior armoured personnel carriers and a Land Rover were set on fire.
“British troops have come under attack by a variety of weapons, including small arms fire, petrol bombs as well as blast bombs and stone,” said Captain Kelly Goodall, a British spokeswoman.
“A small number of live rounds were returned by British troops in self-defence. A number of [British] personnel received minor injuries.”
A commander of the Iranian-backed Mahdi army claimed one of his men had brought down the helicopter with a Russian-made shoulder-launched missile fired from a building in the northwestern al-Ashaar area of Basra. The helicopter crashed into an empty house half a mile from the governor’s residence in the al-Twesa district.
Contacted by The Sunday Times, Jassan Khalaf, the Mahdi commander, threatened further attacks against the 8,000-strong British force in southern Iraq.
“We’re expecting things to get much worse,” he said. “It was an individual act, not an order, but they [the British] are our enemy.
“We will target their tanks and their troops. We have the right to choose the time and the date. It was a good time today.”
The loss of the helicopter — the first British one brought down by enemy fire since the invasion of Iraq three years ago — prompted scenes of jubilation among followers of al-Sadr.
Iraqi television and Al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite station, showed hundreds of people dancing in the street and hurling stones at British soldiers as a plume of black smoke from the helicopter curled into the sky.
Calm returned by nightfall as the Iraqi authorities imposed a curfew and hundreds of Iraqi police and soldiers patrolled the streets.
Basra police said that four charred bodies of the helicopter’s crew had been seen in the wreckage, but the Ministry of Defence would confirm only that there had been “a number” of casualties.
The incident was the worst for British forces since 10 servicemen died in a Hercules aircraft shot down by small arms fire near Balad, north of Baghdad, in January last year.
It could increase pressure on Tony Blair from Labour MPs opposed to the Iraq conflict following the party’s heavy local election defeat and the demotion of Jack Straw, the former foreign secretary, who had expressed reservations about grounds for war. Yesterday’s deaths, if confirmed, will bring the British toll in Iraq to 108.
Military sources said the helicopter may have been a Westland Merlin on a reconnaissance flight to establish the locations of militia cells.
British forces rely increasingly on helicopters to move around the city after the deaths of seven soldiers since last September in a series of roadside bombings.
According to Mushtaq Khazim, a local police captain, the helicopter in yesterday’s incident was hit by a missile or a rocket-propelled grenade. Analysts said the crash was a “disaster” for British policy in southern Iraq.
“It’s a very worrying development for military commanders on the ground because they will have to stop choppers flying. Meanwhile, the guys on the street see it as a blow against the occupiers,” said Major Charles Hayman, of Jane’s Defence Consultancy.
The attack marks a further deterioration in British attempts to control Basra, Iraq’s second largest city and a stronghold of the Mahdi army. A “hearts and minds” campaign to win over the local population has stalled and attempts to train the local police, heavily infiltrated by the militias, have ground to a halt.
Relations with al-Sadr reached crisis point last September when British soldiers arrested six members of the Mahdi army, including Sheikh Ahmad Majid al-Fartusi, the militia’s Basra commander.
A week later militiamen and local residents clashed with British troops after two SAS soldiers disguised as Arabs were detained by Iraqi authorities.
An Iraqi police station was flattened in the army’s dramatic operation to free the SAS men.
Hayman warned that British troops were now being subjected to the same hostility as that shown to the Americans further north. “It’s now right across Iraq,” he said.
The army constantly changes its flight routes over Basra but helicopters are always vulnerable, especially when coming into land. The helicopter shot down would have been fitted with a “defensive aids suite” including flares, chaff and a radar warning system.
However, Paul Beaver, a defence analyst and helicopter pilot, said the safety devices gave protection from surface-to-air missiles but not from rocket-propelled grenades.
“Crews will try to avoid known problem areas but they do need to fly low and they are therefore vulnerable,” he said.
Additional reporting: Ali Rifat, Baghdad, and Peter Almond