US and British hopes of a big popular uprising against President Saddam Hussein in Basra, Iraq's second city, were fading on Wednesday as coalition aircraft bombed local offices of the ruling Ba'ath party and skirmishes continued in southern Iraq.
The British 7th armoured brigade, known as the Desert Rats, is deployed on the outskirts of Basra but remains reluctant to commit troops to a dangerous round of house-to-house fighting.
The apparent lack of rebellion in Basra is a disappointment for the coalition, which had hoped to take the predominantly Shia Muslim city without a fight and — with the help of humanitarian aid — make it an example of the benefits of occupation.
Tony Blair, UK prime minister, spoke only of "some limited form of uprising" when he addressed the British parliament on Wednesday. Geoff Hoon, UK defence secretary, mentioned "disturbances", saying that "regime militia" had tried to attack rebels with mortars and machine guns.
Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, spokesman for the US Central Command, said: "What we saw in Basra last night [Tuesday] was a very confusing situation, to say the least."
Coalition commanders believe ordinary soldiers in Basra are keen to surrender, but are being prevented from doing so by at least 1,000 irregular troops loyal to the regime, including the so-called Fedayeen Saddam.
The main exiled Iraqi Shia organisation on Wednesday said the Shia community had been instructed to remain neutral in the US-led invasion. The Tehran-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri) said there did appear to have been trouble in the city, but played down the scale of the unrest.
"Some people are saying there were demonstrations that were put down, but others say parts of Basra are now controlled by the people," said Hamed al-Bayati, Sciri's London representative. "We're not sure who is behind it."
Pan-Arab television stations on Wednesday showed footage from a quiet city. But Shia opposition officials said journalists were not free to roam the streets of Basra and might have been shown areas that had indeed remained calm.
Ghanem Jawad, a human rights activist with the London-based Khoi Foundation, said that rioting on Monday was sparked by a heated exchange between Ba'ath party officials and some residents near the Saad square, starting point for the 1991 uprising that was brutally put down by the Iraqi regime. Someone in the crowd was said to have fired on a Ba'athist official, provoking further chaos.
Basra's residents have mixed feelings about the US invasion. The bitter experience of 1991, when the US encouraged them to rise against the regime but then failed to come to their rescue, has discouraged further uprisings. The people are also gripped by fear and are under immense pressure from regime loyalists to fight for Saddam Hussein.
But Mr Jawad also said some Islamist Shias might be tempted to fight the allies. "Some people have strong nationalist feelings and strong Islamist feelings. They're reminded by their parents of the time of the British occupation and the resistance at that time," he said.
The coalition faces what one senior British soldier grimly calls a "predicament" over Basra. British commanders say they will try to exploit any unrest in the city, but they are also highly sensitive to the dangers of wading into the city and provoking a bloodbath.news.ft.com/servlet/ContentServer?pagename=FT.com/StoryFT/FullStory&c=StoryFT&ciE-mail this article