KUWAIT CITY, March 26 (UPI) -- U.S. forces -- and American media attention -- focused on the hard, grinding battles being fought by the U.S. Marines at An Nasiriyah and on the U.S. 3rd Division at An Najaf to secure their crossings over the Euphrates River. But a potentially decisive drama was unfolding far to the south in the second Iraqi city of Basra.
British patrols began probing cautiously into Basra Wednesday morning through a thick and dusty haze, as British military spokesmen in Kuwait said the uprising against forces loyal to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was still ongoing and that some Iraqi military units had been observed pulling out of the city.
But reports are sketchy of the popular uprising of Tuesday afternoon and evening.
According to Kuwaiti sources with family contacts in Basra, the trouble apparently began early Tuesday with popular protests against the conscription of family members to be forced to act -- at gunpoint -- as human shields by fedayeen and other pro-Baghdad irregulars attacking British troops.
Outraged at this "disloyalty," Saddam's cousin and special envoy to the city, Ali Hassan al-Majid -- known as "Chemical Ali" for his command of the forces who used poison gas against Kurdish Iraqis -- ordered the execution of the local Shiite official of the ruling Baathist Party.
Other Baathists in the city -- who are usually Saddam's loyal supporters -- objected violently and helped organize demonstrations. They were swiftly joined by supporters of Daawa Islamiya (Islamic Call) a militant Shiite group that has long operated underground whose leaders have been in contact with U.S.-led coalition intelligence and special forces.
British military intelligence officers attached to the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, part of the 7th Armored Brigade battle group besieging the city, learned of the unfolding events through monitoring Iraqi radio communications. Then they learned Iraqi forces inside Basra were using mortars and firing artillery over open sights at angry crowds of Shiite demonstrators.
British gunners started shelling the Iraqi forces late Tuesday and pumped flares into the sky throughout the night to try and establish what was unfolding. They also called in airstrikes that destroyed the Baathist Party headquarters in the city.
Iraqi officials in Baghdad declared the British account was "lies" and said Basra was quiet, a report apparently confirmed early Wednesday by a reporter from al-Jazeera TV in the city. British troops were trying to establish Wednesday whether the demonstrations had been crushed or whether a real popular uprising was under way.
The British forces and coalition commanders devoutly hope the uprising will spread. The cities where the U.S. troops advancing on Baghdad have run into serious trouble. An Nasiriyah and An Najaf are predominantly Shiite and they had hoped to be welcomed there as liberators. A broad Shiite uprising against Saddam would transform the politics of the war and ease the military problems.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Tuesday made a point of promising the Shiites, who had been encouraged to rise against Saddam after the Gulf War but were then abandoned to be slaughtered by the Republican Guard, "This time we will not let you down."
"They cannot be sure in their own minds yet that we mean what we say," he admitted Monday. "In their own minds, they have to be very circumspect until they're sure the regime's gone."
The key to the events in Basra will depend on local leadership of the anti-Baghdad forces, and on the role of Shiite spiritual leaders. The 1991 uprising was launched by the late Ayatollah Abul-Qassim al-Khoei, and British intelligence had hoped to groom his son Abdel Majid al-Khoei for a similar role.
But Abdel Mejid, still in London this week, where he runs a Shiite charitable organization, was cautious. He told reporters: "If Baghdad is still in Saddam's hands then his people in the other towns -- the Baath officials or the mukhabarat (secret police) -- will still have power. If the capital is cut off, then it will be easier to act elsewhere."