Violent street clashes erupted between Shiite militiamen and British soldiers in the southern city of Basra after British tanks stormed a jail to free two of the troops.
The daylong violence in Iraq’s second-largest city raised troubling questions about the relationship between British forces in charge of security and their Iraqi counterparts, in what once was considered a relatively safe area of the country.
The clashes, which involved members of cleric Muqtada Sadr’s Al Mahdi militia, apparently began when British commandos fired on Iraqi police, who took them into custody.
Tanks then bore down on the jail, knocking down a wall before the men were freed, along with dozens of other detainees who took advantage of the chaos to escape, according to local reports and news agency accounts.
Iraqi and British officials gave varying accounts of the events. According to one Iraqi official, the soldiers moved in after Iraqi officials apparently detained a British delegation trying to negotiate the release of the two men originally arrested.
But another official said the police received an order from higher-ups to release the men. Similarly, a British Defense Ministry official in London told Reuters news service that the two soldiers were freed after talks.
But this morning, a ministry spokesman in London acknowledged that troops used an armored vehicle to smash down the prison wall, Reuters said.
The spokesman said the British entered the prison because the men had been handed over to local militiamen. It said the soldiers had been moved to a house in town.
In the clashes, three Iraqis were killed, including a child and two police officers. Twenty-seven people were injured.
Television images of the street fighting showed Iraqis firebombing an armored vehicle and a British soldier emerging with his uniform in flames. The BBC reported that the soldier was treated for minor injuries.
Though Basra has not suffered the same level of violence as other cities in Iraq, residents say peace has come at a cost. Armed militiamen rule the streets, enforcing perceived infractions of Islamic law with beatings and even killings, residents say.
In the once-cosmopolitan city, women no longer can go unveiled on the streets, and physicians have been beaten for treating female patients.
The militias have also infiltrated the police, taking orders from clerics instead of commanders.
“The shift in Basra’s situation from calmness to disorder is because of the authorities here,” said Abid Sayid Mohammed Samad, 52, a Basra auto mechanic. “All are affiliated with different entities and blocs, and this rivalry among parties has undermined the security situation.”
The clashes followed the discovery Monday of the body of Fakher Haider,38, a journalist who worked for local TV and radio, as well as the New York Times, the Guardian in London, National Geographic and other publications, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
His death brought the toll for journalists or media workers in Iraq to 68 since the conflict began in 2003 -- five more than were killed in 20 years of covering the conflict in Vietnam, according to Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based advocacy group. Two-thirds of those killed in Iraq were Iraqis, the group said.
The Committee to Protect Journalists put the death toll at 55.
Haider, a father of three, was taken from his home Sunday night by masked men who presented themselves as authorities and told his family he was wanted for questioning and would be back an hour later, police and others said.
His beaten, bullet-riddled corpse was discovered in a deserted area outside the city Monday morning, the New York Times said in a statement.
Haider was the second journalist abducted and killed in Basra. American freelance journalist Steven Vincent was kidnapped and slain last month.
Haider’s death also follows the kidnapping and shooting death in Mosul on Friday of Hind Ismail, a 28-year-old reporter for the local daily As Saffir. Police in the southern suburb of Muthana found her body the next morning with a single bullet wound to the head, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“We deplore the killing of these two reporters,” Executive Director Ann Cooper said on the committee’s website. “All journalists covering this story are in danger, but those in the front line now are Iraqis, and they are paying a terrible price.”
After enjoying a brief flowering of freedom and opportunities in the wake of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Iraqi journalists live in fear for their lives and rarely reveal their profession in public.
“All the media people are now targeted and vulnerable simply because they convey the truth,” said Nadhem Jabari, spokesman for the Basra provincial council. “We know very well that the truth would embarrass many people.”
Because of threats to Western reporters, much of the street-level reporting has been done by Iraqi journalists, who file reports to all major media, including the Los Angeles Times.
It was unclear if Haider was targeted for his work with Western or local media.
“Covering this war is a perilous assignment for all journalists, but the gravest risk falls on those whose country is the battleground and whose lives are inextricable from the society,” Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, said in the statement.
“We’re all in shock about Fakher’s death,” said Robert F. Worth, a Baghdad-based New York Times correspondent. “He was a wonderful colleague, gentle and brave and resourceful. He had a great sense of humor. We will miss him.”
Elsewhere, Iraq’s steady tempo of bloodshed continued, with at least 11 other Iraqis killed in politically motivated violence.
Near Baghdad on Monday, at least eight Iraqi police commandos, an Iraqi soldier and a civilian were killed and 12 others injured in car bombings at two checkpoints beyond the city’s southern edge.
The attacks, in Mahmoudiya and Latifiya, were launched within the perilous cluster of small towns and palm groves south of Baghdad known as the “triangle of death.” Authorities have tightened security in the area as pilgrims walk toward the holy city of Karbala for an annual Shiite religious ceremony.
In Baqubah, a turbulent city of Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds 35 miles northeast of the capital, the provincial governor escaped an assassination attempt that injured three of his guards, and an explosion targeting a group of day laborers left one civilian killed.
Times staff writer Louise Roug in Baghdad and special correspondents in Basra and Baqubah contributed to this report.