BAGHDAD, Iraq – About 500 civilians and policemen, some waving pistols and AK-47s, rallied Wednesday in the southern city of Basra and denounced "British aggression" following London's decision to use force to free two of its soldiers being held by Iraqi police.
Attacks by insurgents continued in and around Baghdad, with a roadside bomb wounding two U.S. soldiers. The blast came a day after the death toll for U.S. forces in Iraq rose to more than 1,900.
The demonstrators in Basra (search) shouted "No to occupation!" and carried banners condemning "British aggression" and demanding the freed soldiers be tried in an Iraqi court as "terrorists."
Some of the protesters met with the Basra police chief, Gen. Hassan Sawadi (search), to demand a British apology, said police spokesman Col. Karim al-Zaidi. Heavily armed soldiers and police watched the protest but didn't intervene. Al-Zaidi said the demonstration was arranged by some policemen, not by the force or its commander.
Clashes between British forces and Iraqi police have killed five civilians, including two who died of their injuries Wednesday in a hospital, authorities said.
The fighting occurred Monday night when British forces used armored vehicles to storm a Basra jail and free their two soldiers who had been arrested by police. During the raid, British forces learned that Shiite Muslim (search) militiamen and police had moved the men to a nearby house. The British then stormed that house and rescued them.
Interior Minister Bayan Jabr (search) disputed the British account. He told the British Broadcasting Corp. the two soldiers never left police custody or the jail, were not handed to militants, and that the British army acted on a "rumor" when it stormed the jail.
Britain defended its action, saying the men were first stopped by plainclothes gunmen, then moved by militiamen from a jail to a private home while British officials tried to negotiate their release with Iraqi officials.
Lisa Glover, a British Foreign Office spokeswoman in Baghdad, said Wednesday the two soldiers "were challenged by armed men in plain clothes ... and they obviously didn't know who there were being challenged by."
But "when Iraqi police asked them to stop, they did," she said in an interview with The Associated Press.
She said British officials had been negotiating with Iraqi authorities in Basra for the release of the two soldiers with an Iraqi judge present. "When it became apparent they were no longer at the station, but had been moved elsewhere, we naturally became concerned."
"At this time, where there are forces in Basra and all over Iraq, such things are expected to happen," al-Jaafari said after talks with Reid in London. "As for us, it will not affect the relationship between Iraq and Britain, and we hope that together we will reach ... the truth of the matter."
Reid said "there has not been a fundamental breakdown in trust between the British government and the Iraqi government," and he vowed British troops would stay in Iraq until the country was stable.
"We will not cut and run and we will not leave the job half done," Reid said.
After British armored vehicles stormed the jail to free two commandos, National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie (search) said the operation was "a violation of Iraqi sovereignty."
Al-Jaafari's office in Baghdad issued a statement Tuesday afternoon, insisting there was no crisis in relations between the two countries.
At first, Basra police said the men shot and killed a policeman, but on Tuesday al-Jaafari's spokesman, Haydar al-Abadi, said the men — who were wearing civilian clothes — were grabbed for behaving suspiciously and collecting information.
The British said the soldiers had been handed over to a militia. The Basra governor confirmed the claim, saying the Britons were in the custody of the al-Mahdi Army (search), the militia controlled by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search).
"The two British were being kept in a house controlled by militiamen when the rescue operation took place," said Gov. Mohammed al-Waili.
"Police who are members of the militia group took them to a nearby house after jail authorities learned the facility was about to be stormed," he said, demanding that the British soldiers be handed over to local authorities for trial. He would not say what charges they might face.
Britain's position appeared to be strengthened by al-Rubaie, who acknowledged that one problem coalition forces face is that insurgents have joined the ranks of security forces.
"Iraqi security forces in general, police in particular, in many parts of Iraq, I have to admit, have been penetrated by some of the insurgents, some of the terrorists as well," he said in an interview with the BBC on Tuesday night.
Officials in Basra, speaking on condition of anonymity because they feared for their lives, said at least 60 percent of the police force there is made up of Shiite militiamen from one of three groups: the Mahdi Army; the Badr Brigade (search), the armed wing of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (search); and Hezbollah in Iraq (search), a small group based in the southern marshlands.
All three groups have deep historical, religious and political ties to Iran, where many Shiite political and religious figures took refuge during the rule of Saddam Hussein.
While about 135,000 U.S. troops operate throughout Iraq, the 8,500 British forces are headquartered in the Basra region.
In Wednesday's violence in and around Baghdad, a roadside bomb exploded as a U.S. military convoy drove through the Abu Ghraib area on the western outskirts of the capital, wounding two soldiers, said Lt. Jamie Davis, a spokesman for the U.S. Army.
Iraqi police 1st Lt. Mohammed Khayon said the U.S. forces then opened fire on people in the area, wounding an Iraqi civilian, but Davis couldn't confirm that.
Roadside bombs also exploded near two other U.S. convoys in southwestern Baghdad and in the Taji area north of the capital. No soldiers were wounded, Davis said.
Iraqi forces fought with suspected insurgents based in several homes near the United Arab Emirates Embassy in the Mansour neighborhood, and two policemen, one soldier and five insurgents were killed, said army Brig. Abdeljalil Khalaf.
The fighting began after an Iraqi the insurgents had tried to kidnap reported the militants to Iraqi forces, who then raided several homes and found bombs and weapons, said Maj. Falah al-Mohamdawi of the Interior Ministry.
In the Euphrates River insurgent stronghold of Haditha (search), a coalition raid Sunday on a terrorist safehouse killed Shehab Hamed, also known as Abu Ali, a regional leader of the Al Qaeda in Iraq (search) insurgent group, the U.S. military said.
Hamed had recently moved from Qaim, near the Syrian border, to Haditha, it said.
On Monday, four U.S. soldiers attached to the Marines died in two roadside bombings near the insurgent stronghold of Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad.
Three soldiers died Friday, but their deaths weren't announced until Tuesday.
And a soldier from the 18th Military Police Brigade was killed in a roadside bombing 75 miles north of the capital Tuesday, the military said.
The deaths raised the overall toll of U.S. troops killed in Iraq to 1,907.
In addition, a Diplomatic Security agent attached to the U.S. State Department and three private American security guards were killed Monday when their convoy was hit by a suicide car bomber in Mosul, the U.S. Embassy said. The four were attached to the U.S. Embassy's regional office in Mosul.