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Rioting is taking place in Basra by locals opposed to Saddam Hussein, reports say.

British forces are firing on Iraqi troops who are trying to crush the uprising, the reports add.

Reporter Richard Gaisford, who is with troops just west of Basra, said British intelligence officers told him about the civil uprising.

The Scots Dragoon Guards officers told him Saddam loyalists were firing mortar rounds at the attackers.

UK troops responded by firing artillery shells at the Iraqi positions, Gaisford said.

Two large explosions have been heard in the city centre and there are reports the ruling Ba'ath Party HQ has been hit.

Gaisford said the officers had earlier told him intelligence from the southern Iraqi city suggested that local people had indicated they would welcome the Allied forces but were in fear of Saddam loyalists.

"Now it seems they have had the courage to stand up to Saddam Hussein and his regime and they will be supported by British forces," Gaisford said.

Gaisford said British troops were preparing to enter the city centre when dawn breaks in Iraq.

Sky News Foreign Editor Tim Marshall said that if the reports were true, it would be a "crucial moment" in the Iraq war.

He said it could trigger more uprisings across parts of Iraq - which the British and American governments had hoped for.

Marshall said the majority of the people around Basra were Shi'ite Muslims, who had been oppressed by Saddam's regime.

Saddam's ruling Ba'ath Party are predominantly made up of Sunni Muslims.

Earlier, British military sources said about 20 of Saddam Hussein's henchmen were killed and a key party official captured in a raid by British forces near Basra on Monday night.

Last Updated: 19:12 UK, Tuesday March 25, 2003

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CAMP AS SAYLIYAH, Qatar — The Shiite majority in Basra have started a popular uprising against Saddam Hussein's forces, Sky News reported Tuesday.

Iraqi forces are reportedly firing at the Shiite protesters, who have the support of British troops in the area. British forces have captured the top Baath party official, a U.K. spokesman said.

Earlier Tuesday, Air Force Major Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr. said the situation in Basra was fragile and that an uprising was possible.

At a press briefing at U.S. Central Command in Qatar, Reunart Jr. said a vast majority of the Shiites have been oppressed by Saddam's regime for years.

"I think that they feel a threat to their security by these Baath party, special Republican Guard troops, that they're terrorizining their neighborhood," he said.

British and U.S. forces wanted the people of Basra to attack soldiers loyal to Saddam, Reuters reported.

In an about-face, British forces said Tuesday they have decided to move against militia fighters who have prevented them from securing Basra, a city in southern Iraq and Iraq's second-largest city.

Previously, coalition forces said they wanted to avoid urban combat there.

The decision to declare parts of Basra "military targets" came after U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned of a humanitarian crisis in the city and said "urgent measures" had to be taken to restore electricity and water.

British forces have surrounded the city and secured its airport but have continued to face pockets of resistance, including members of Saddam's elite Fedayeen paramilitary force. On Monday there were artillery exchanges throughout the day.

"We're obviously assessing the situation before we commence operations to take out the non-regular militia which seems to be set to opposing our taking of the objective," said Group Capt. Al Lockwood, spokesman for British forces in the Persian Gulf.

With 1.3 million people in Basra, "we need to secure the city for the inhabitants and to ensure that their basic necessities in life are taken care of, and obviously that the necessary humanitarian aid, medical facilities are restored as quickly as possible," he said.

British military officials had said several days ago that they would prefer to negotiate surrenders with enemy troops rather than move into Basra itself to secure it. But with resistance continuing, they apparently concluded that something more decisive was necessary.

It was not clear if British forces would move into Basra itself. They have said they wanted to avoid urban combat for as long as possible.

Basra is Iraq's main seaport and lies in southern Iraq's oil-producing region. It is a mostly Shiite city; a 1991 uprising by Shiite Muslims in Basra was crushed by the Iraqi military during the Gulf War.

A British military spokesman said Basra itself was a military target. But later he said only parts of the city -- regime and military infrastructure -- were now so designated.

In a separate attack on militiamen loyal to Saddam, members of Britain's 7th Armored Brigade captured a member of the Baath Party in nearby Az Zubayr on Monday night, the spokesman said. The goal of the operation was to "separate the party members from the military," the spokesman said.

Also in Az Zubayr late Monday, a soldier with another British unit was killed. It was the second combat death for Britain.

Also late Monday, 25 Iraqi armored vehicles, including a number of T-55 battle tanks, were destroyed after British forces called in air support over the al-Faw peninsula, the spokesman said. The Iraqis were firing mortar rounds and artillery.

Fox News' Mike Tobin and the Associated Press contributed to this report

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