Thu, Dec 09, 2004 - Page 6 News List

UK defense chief visits troops in Iraq


Gunmen detonated a car bomb next to a US convoy in southern Baghdad and clashes broke out around the US base in Ramadi yesterday, as British defense minister Geoff Hoon arrived in the southern city of Basra to confer with local officials.

Hospital officials said three Iraqis were killed and one wounded in the clashes around the base, and it wasn't known if they were insurgents or not. The roadside bomb wounded two US soldiers and wounded six Iraqi civilians, and no one was killed, said US military spokesman Major Jay Antonelli.

Hoon was scheduled to meet with some of Britain's 9,000 soldiers based around Basra who have recently been engaged in combat operations in central Iraq in support of a US-led effort to clear insurgents from a wide swathe of territory south of Baghdad, spokesman Major David Gibb said.

Hoon also planned to discuss preparations for Iraq's Jan. 30 elections in talks with the governor of Basra, Hassan al-Rashid during his one-day visit, he said.

"His visit is sending a major political message to the Iraqi people and the regional states that a senior British politician is supporting not just the military operations in the country but also the political process and the rebuilding of Iraq as it moves toward the establishment of a new government after the Jan. 30 elections," Gibb said.

Basra, 550km southeast of Baghdad, lies close to Iraq's long and porous border with Iran. Hoon's visit comes at a time when top officials of the interim government have complained that the country's neighbors are not doing enough to prevent militants from infiltrating into Iraq.

Iraq's US-installed authorities have repeatedly called on their neighbors -- particularly Syria and Iran -- to guard their borders more closely.

Jordan's King Abdullah II and Iraq's interim president, both Sunni Muslims, singled out Iran, accusing the Islamic republic of trying to influence the Jan. 30 elections.

Abdullah told The Washington Post in an interview published Wednesday that more than 1 million Iranians have crossed the border into Iraq, many to vote, and he said they were being encouraged by the Iranian government.

The king also reportedly accused the Iranians of paying salaries and providing welfare to unemployed Iraqis to promote pro-Iranian public sentiment.

"It is in Iran's vested interest to have an Islamic republic of Iraq ... and therefore the involvement you're getting by the Iranians is to achieve a government that is very pro-Iran," Abdullah told the newspaper.

Iraqi officials have previously suggested that Iran, which is overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim, is backing its Shiite brethren, who form a majority in Iraq.

"Unfortunately, time is proving, and the situation is proving, beyond any doubt that Iran has very obvious interference in our business," Iraq's interim President Ghazi al-Yawer, a Sunni, said in an interview with Washington Post editors and reporters.

Iran has said it has no interest in fomenting instability in Iraq and it tries to block any infiltration into Iraq by insurgents -- while pleading that its porous borders are hard to police.

In Samarra, 95km north of Baghdad, gunmen attempted to storm the town's main police station early yesterday, Major Sadoun Ahmed said.

Police returned fire before the attackers fled. One policeman and a child caught in the crossfire died in the clash.

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