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Basra now military target, says UK

British troops in southern Iraq.
British troops in southern Iraq.

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CNN's Christiane Amanpour reports that Iraqi troops have pulled back into Basra, making the town a military target (March 25)
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BASRA, Iraq (CNN) -- In a change of strategy, senior British military officials said early Tuesday that the city of Basra had become a "legitimate military target."

CNN's Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour in Kuwait says this is due to intense resistance from Iraqi troops who have withdrawn into Basra.

Coalition forces will now be able to "wear down the Iraqi forces in the city and facilitate humanitarian aid for its citizens," British officials said.

Previously, the allied coalition wanted to avoid fighting inside Basra. However, elements of the Iraqi 51st Division that was defending areas south of the city have pulled back into Basra -- with artillery, tanks and infantry.

The Americans and British say they want to use Basra as an entry point for humanitarian aid. British officials said they did not plan to hit the city indiscriminately, but wanted to target the Iraqi military there.

Basra's population of 1.7 million has been without water and electricity for at least two days, CNN's Daryn Kagan reported. (Full story)

Originally, coalition troops wanted to isolate the city and any Iraqi forces in it, while the main coalition force moved north, British officials told Amanpour.

The change in military strategy was described by British officials as a "difficult and high risk" operation. No timetable was given.

Spokesman Group Captain Al Lockwood told CNN: "It would have been ideal if Basra had surrendered and we had been able to take the city without a fight. But we will probably need to go in and beat any resistance."

On Monday, there was 10 hours of fighting between Britain's 7th Armoured Brigade and Iraqi forces on the outskirts of Basra. There were no British casualties and there was no word from coalition forces on any Iraqi casualties.

British officials believe the Iraqis may be trying to bring reinforcements into eastern Basra from the north. British troops are in an arc around the west of the city and say they are working to prevent any Iraqi reinforcement.

Lockwood added: "What TV viewers are seeing are small skirmishes. The overall plans are on track and on time."

The Iraqis fighting in Basra were "irregulars," lightly armed and few in number, Lockwood said.

But, he said, they were members of the Fedayin, extremely loyal to Saddam Hussein, who had been terrorizing the citizens of Basra.

Lockwood said humanitarian relief was a priority and British forces were actively involved in opening Iraq's main port of Umm Qasr to the south as quickly as possible. The Royal Navy and other coalition naval forces were clearing the channel of mines, he said.

But Iraqi Trade Minister Muhammad Mahdi al-Salih Tuesday said the U.S. and Britain were holding up shipments of food and medical supplies which Iraq would receive under the oil for food program.

He said the shipments could feed the Iraqi people for two years and asked U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to ensure they were sent.

The U.N. was due to discuss the oil for food program Tuesday.

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