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Last Updated:  Sunday, 6 April, 2003, 14:22 GMT 15:22 UK
Q & A: Assault on Basra
The Royal Marines Commandos have launched a second offensive on the southern Iraq city of Basra.

BBC correspondent Tim Franks interviewed Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Blackman, commanding officer of the Scots Dragoon Guards, who helped lead part of the first push on the city.

What have you been doing today?

We did a raid up into the centre of Basra, what is known as the gateway to Basra. Effectively it was a case of identifying what was going on up there, trying in all manner to create the conditions for a popular uprising.

I would not say that the uprising has necessarily happened but there is an awful lot of normal civilian activity on the streets. We very clearly cleared the Fedayeen either completely or certainly from the area of the gateway to Basra and the university complex we are just clearing at the moment.

How close were you into the centre and how tactically important is it?

The five or six kilometres up to the gateway to Basra is traditionally the main route into town, the gateway has always been the cultural and focal centre to the city so it is of enormous significance to the local population. There was a very large statue of Saddam Hussein until a couple of days ago and that has now disappeared.

In all senses to the local psyche it is the centre of town, it leads into the old town itself.

Militarily what were you facing?

Almost entirely irregulars, some Fedayeen. We identified today what we thought were limited numbers of regular forces and a few T-55s (tanks) which we have engaged and destroyed but the vast majority were irregulars - a number of them playing dead, hiding in trench systems. We were really just winkling them out one by one.

What sort of opposition did you encounter?

As I said, a couple of T-55s which were manned and destroyed but the vast majority were irregulars. Probably today we have seen 100, 150... that sort of order on the way up this route that in the most case have been killed but some, thankfully, I'm delighted to say, have been taken prisoner of war.

How significant has been the amount of opposition in this city?

The clear impression both from talking to the local population and what we seeing on the ground is that the Feyadeen is on the run. I think that the management of the Baath party and whatever was left of the military government, the defence of Basra, as far as we are concerned have moved out, certainly out of our part of Basra.

Are you hoping to have some holding position further into the city centre?

We are holding at the College of Literature in order to ensure that we have a firm base there and then continue to step forward.

Has this all happened a little more quickly than was expected?

We've been using the expression of the 'set scrum' to start off with and then the 'rolling maul' and the last couple of days has been a rolling maul - pushing and pushing and trying to be as unpredictable as possible, seeing what's going on, trying to identify patterns of behaviour and exploiting an opportunity and that's what happened today.

Are you surprised at the level of opposition encountered? Many people raised the notion of Fayadeen as die-hards and that the fight would be long, bloody and awkward. Has it happened like that?

It is not necessarily long and bloody but they are fighting and dying to the last man which is sad because it is pointless in many cases but clearly that's the way it has to be. We have certainly broken through the crust and I'm not sure there's much left now. We have certainly heard stories from locals that the Feyadeen are on the run. I certainly hope so because it's in danger of becoming pointless.

Do you sense that this is now the beginning of the final assault on Basra?

Very much so, we in a commanding position across of all of the battle group areas. Our concerns now are that the local population is very much out and about - they are merely repossessing what I guess they consider to be their right after 20 years. There is an enormous amount of looting and repositioning of equipment going on.

The concern from our point is the number of people who are out and about as normal and, of course, the old city which is very close and very narrow. I would hate that we are going to get overly involved in engagements in those streets.

Can you predict when you will be in complete control?

No, to be honest I can't. We are very firmly in control of much of it.




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