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'Key Suburbs of Basra Have Now Been Taken,' says British Defense Secretary - 2003-04-03

Britain says its troops have taken key suburbs of the southern Iraqi city of Basra, and are getting more and more help from Iraqi civilians as they move to take full control of the city.

British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon told parliament that British forces are consolidating their positions around Basra, but are in no particular hurry to take control of the entire city.

"Key suburbs of Basra have now been taken," Mr. Hoon said. "We will go further into the city at a time of our own choosing."

Defense Secretary Hoon said coalition forces are making steady progress toward their military objectives in Iraq, including Basra and Baghdad, but he said no one should underestimate the difficulty of what remains to be done, or how long it might take.

He said the coalition has taken about 9,000 Iraqi prisoners of war.

At British field headquarters in Kuwait, Colonel Chris Vernon said civilians in and around Basra are helping the coalition chip away at the control Saddam loyalists continue to exert in the city.

"Day on day, and I am not going to say how, our intelligence capability within Basra is improving exponentially," he said. "We are getting extremely good human intelligence. Iraqi people telling us where the Baath Party are meeting, and within a space of two to three hours that meeting place does no longer exist."

Colonel Vernon also said the British advance on Basra might have gone more quickly if the coalition forces were not so concerned with avoiding civilian casualties.

"We have been severely constrained in the prosecution of this by our absolute aim to minimize civilian collateral damage," said Colonel Vernon. "Time and time again we have pulled back from any engagements where the balance of risks goes the other way."

In his remarks in parliament, Defense Secretary Hoon accused Iraqi forces of shooting civilians trying to flee Basra and other cities. He declined to provide evidence, but said there is intelligence information about how some British soldiers were killed that would support Prime Minister Blair's statement last week that at least two British soldiers held by Iraq were executed. Mr. Hoon said there is evidence Iraqi soldiers have committed war crimes.

Mr. Hoon also said neither of the Baghdad markets apparently hit by missiles in recent weeks were targeted by coalition forces. He said the head of Baghdad air defense has been replaced partly because Iraqi missiles were falling on the city, injuring and killing civilians.