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British Officials: Troops to Stay in Basra Until Hostilities End - 2003-04-07

Britain says it has captured the Iraqi city of Basra and will not leave until hostilities end.

Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon has given an upbeat analysis of the battlefield situation in Iraq, where coalition forces have advanced to the center of the two key cities, Baghdad and Basra.

The British military is spearheading the Basra offensive, and Mr. Hoon told a news conference things are going well.

"In Basra, British troops began an operation to take control of the city on Saturday. Sunday they moved into the heart of the city. They are now in Basra to stay," he said.

The defense secretary said the war is not over by any means, and more fighting can be expected in the coming days. "The regime's resistance is not necessarily at an end. In Baghdad itself, as in other urban areas, coalition forces may well face a difficult and dangerous period of flushing out the remnants of Iraqi forces and in particular the various groups of irregulars, thugs and fanatics who hang on to the coattails of the regime," he said.

Mr. Hoon said, time is running out for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. "What is clear is that Saddam Hussein's regime is coming to an end and that a better future is in sight for the Iraqi people," he said.

In a later appearance in parliament, the defense secretary was in a jocular mood when asked about reports of Basra citizens going on a looting rampage.

"It does appear, fortunately so far, to be confined to Iraqi citizens [who are] -- should I use the word -- "liberating" items that are in charge of the regime, going into the former facilities of the regime, to the secret organizations, and redistributing that wealth among the Iraqi people," he said. "So, I regard such behavior as perhaps good practice."

Mr. Hoon was also asked about the failure of the Iraqi air force to respond to the coalition invasion. "I think it is fair to say that the Iraqi air force was confined to ground operations," he said.

On a more somber note, the defense secretary paid tribute to three British servicemen killed Sunday in the Basra offensive. Britain has lost 11 men to enemy fire since the war began on March 20, and another 20 killed in accidents and 'friendly fire' incidents.