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Battle of Basra
Part of 2003 invasion of Iraq, Iraq War
DateMarch 21, 2003 – April 6, 2003
LocationBasra, Iraq
Result British occupation
Iraq Iraq
Casualties and losses
395–515 killed[1]
14 tanks destroyed
11 killed [2]

The Battle of Basra lasted from March 21, 2003 to April 6, 2003 and was one of the first battles of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The British 7 Armoured Brigade fought their way into Iraq's second-largest city, Basra, on 6 April coming under constant attack by regulars and Fedayeen. While elements of the Parachute Regiment cleared the 'old quarter' of the city that was inaccessible to vehicles. Entering Basra had only been achieved after two weeks of conflict, which included the biggest tank battle by British forces since the Second World War when the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards destroyed 14 Iraqi tanks on 27 March.


Basra is a city of more than one million people, located in Southern Iraq. To military and economic planners, it represents a strategic objective because it sits near a port that provides access from inland Iraq to the Persian Gulf. The area around Basra itself produces much of Iraq's oil, which is processed at a local refinery. To the south-east is Rumaila oil field, which by itself contains billions of barrels worth of crude oil—14% of the world supply.[3] To the north-east is the West Qurna Field, the second-largest oil field in the world.

Britain captured Basra from the Ottoman Empire in 1914 and suppressed an Arab revolt there in 1941.[4]

The city was a major target during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and was bombed by the US in the 1991 Gulf War.

Basra was the site of a 1991 uprising to overthrow Saddam Hussein after the US had driven the Iraqi Army from Kuwait. Residents became embittered when support promised by the US did not materialize. Basra then suffered from years of sanctions and bombing, as well as bad treatment from Hussein. An Iraqi living in exile said in 2001: "Iraqis think Saddam is America's man. These people are not going to forget what has happened to them. In their eyes, it is genocide. And people do not forget genocide."[5][6]

The population of Basra saw a dramatic increase in birth defects and childhood cancer during the 1990s; these illnesses and others were blamed on US depleted uranium munitions used in 1991.[7] Sanctions compounded the problem by blocking access to medical equipment and increasing the price of supplies.[6][8]

The United States bombed Basra routinely throughout the 1990s and leading up to the Iraq War.[6]

A new war

Basrans learned of the planned invasion in late 2002 began to prepare for an attack—forming militiats and building fortifications.[6]

Regular bombings of Basra continued during this period.[9]

Basra targeted

The US declared Basra as one of its first targets of the war.[10]

Spokespeople for the US military told the media that Basra's Shi'ite population would welcome the invading forces and rise up against Saddam Hussein. This claim played a role in the public relations campaign conducted by the US and UK governments to win public support for the war.[11][12]

Among Iraqi cities, Basra “would be one that would fall quickly and would yield immediate photogenic results”, said US military historian Raymond Callahan.[11]

"Basra is a prime target. It would give a clear message to the regime - we have got your oil and commercial centre", said Colonel Christopher Langton of the International Institute of Strategic Studies.[4]


US and UK forces entered Iraq from Kuwait on 19 March, approaching Basra on the road that had become notorious as the “Highway of Death” during the Gulf War.[13] The invading army reportedly moved slowly down the highway, having created a traffic jam of military vehicles.[14]

The first fighting of the declared invasion took place on the oilfields and coastline near Basra.[15]

Some fires had already been started at the oil fields. Three fires were visible from across the border in Kuwait.[16] US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld blamed Hussein and said: "It is a crime for that regime to be destroying the riches of the Iraqi people."[4]

The immediate objective for the Coalition forces was to control Basra and the nearby Rumaila oil field.[4] By 22 March, US Marines had gained control of the oil field.[3][17]

Aircraft dropped leaflets on Basra urging Iraqi soldiers to surrender; some did.[18]


Coalition forces met with unexpected resistance in Basra and environs. After a few days of combat, most of the invading American troops moved northwards, leaving Basra under a multi-week siege led by the British—considered more experienced because of their history as colonial administrators of Iraq and of Northern Ireland.[4][19][20]

“Humanitarian crisis”

Water and electricity became scarce after most of Basra's electrical infrastructure was destroyed on 21 March.[21] On 24 March, the International Committee of the Red Cross announced that 60% of Basra's population had been cut off from clean water, and warned of a coming “humanitarian crisis”.[22][23][24] Al Jazeera reported on 27 March that US and UK forces had blocked the city's supply of drinking water, and were preventing the Red Cross from restoring access.[25]

US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said on 31 March:[26]

There seems to be a water problem in Basra but it should be very clear it's not because of anything we did. There's been no bombing of Basra. It seems to be something the regime did. The Red Cross has been in there and we're told that 70 percent of the water supply has been restored. The Kuwaitis are laying a pipe up to the border with water and we're going to pipe it on up to the city.

The Center for Economic and Social Rights reported that the “Anglo-American deprived one million residents of access to safe drinking water for almost two weeks”. The CESR described this action as an attack on a civilian population: a war crime under the Geneva Convention and Hague Convention.[21]

Spokespeople for the occupying powers said that humanitarian aid shipments were nearby and available, but it was not yet possible to transport or distribute them.[27]

British engineers attributed the shortages to looting and long-term decay of infrastructure.[28]

According to antiwar philosopher Arundhati Roy, the British forces eventually provided food and water (for sale) at trucks on the city outskirts. Roy wrote:[29]

After days of enforcing hunger and thirst on the citizens of Basra, the "Allies" have brought in a few trucks of food and water and positioned them tantalisingly on the outskirts of the city. Desperate people flock to the trucks and fight each other for food. (The water we hear, is being sold. To revitalise the dying economy, you understand.) On top of the trucks, desperate photographers fought each other to get pictures of desperate people fighting each other for food. Those pictures will go out through photo agencies to newspapers and glossy magazines that pay extremely well. Their message: The messiahs are at hand, distributing fishes and loaves.

Aerial bombing

The invading forces (including the Australian Air Force) used bombing and psychological warfare during the siege.[30]

On 5 April, US bombers targeted the residential al-Tuwaisi area of downtown Basra—reportedly attempting to kill Ali Hassan al-Majid (a.k.a. “Chemical Ali”). Al-Majid was not present, but 17 civilians were killed by one of two 500-pound laser-guided bombs dropped by US planes.[31]

Cluster bombs

Cluster bombs are controversial because they can leave unexploded “bomblets” which, like landmines, pose an ongoing threat to civilians. The UK did not acknowledge any use of cluster bombs until 3 April, at which time it maintained that these bombs were not used near dense civilian populations. Colonel Chris Vernon stated: "We are not using cluster munitions, for obvious collateral damage reasons, in and around Basra."[32][33][34] On 7 April, UK Secretary of Defense Geoff Hoon said he was “confident that the right balance [had] been struck” between avoiding civilian casualties and protecting Coalition troops.[35]

On 28 May, Britain said it had used cluster bombs in Basra. According to Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram: "We said they would be targeted on specific military targets. There were troops, there was equipment in and around the built-up areas, therefore the bombs were used accordingly to take out the threat to our troops." Ingram acknowledged using more 2000 cluster bomb projectiles on Basra.[36] These were mostly L20A1 artillery shells, fired from the ground—each containing 49 smaller explosives.[37] About 102,900 individual grenades were therefore fired. According to the UK Ministry of Defense, only 2% of these were “duds” that did not explode immediately.[38]

UK cluster bombs caused numerous civilian casualties in Basra during the first few days of battle. Human Rights Watch reported:[39]

U.K. forces caused dozens of civilian casualties when they used ground-launched cluster munitions in and around Basra. A trio of neighborhoods in the southern part of the city was particularly hard hit. At noon on March 23, a cluster strike hit Hay al-Muhandissin al-Kubra (the engineers’ district) while `Abbas Kadhim, 13, was throwing out the garbage. He had acute injuries to his bowel and liver, and a fragment that could not be removed lodged near his heart. On May 4, he was still in Basra’s al Jumhuriyya Hospital. Three hours later, submunitions blanketed the neighborhood of al-Mishraq al Jadid about two-and-a-half kilometers (one-and-a-half miles) northeast. Iyad Jassim Ibrahim, a 26-year old carpenter, was sleeping in the front room of his home when shrapnel injuries caused him to lose consciousness. He later died in surgery. Ten relatives who were sleeping elsewhere in the house suffered shrapnel injuries. Across the street, the cluster strike injured three children.

The attack also left dud grenades scattered through Basra. Some of these injured children who picked them up.[40] Others injured UK troops later tasked with cleanup[41]

Children were also injured by “dud” grenades fired by the Iraqi military.[42]


The Iraqi military used antipersonnel and antivehicle landmines to obstruct the Coalition advance and to fortify urban positions. These mines caused civilian and military casualties.[43]

Depleted uranium

US and UK forces both used depleted uranium munitions in the course of the battle.

Basra officials contested the use of these weapons, saying that depleted uranium used during the 1991 Gulf War was responsible for birth defects and cancer among the city's population. US munitions director Colonel James Naughton explicitly addressed concerns about the poisonous effects of these weapons, saying that Iraq had exaggerated these claims in order to avoid fighting against the weapon:[44]

The Iraqis tell us terrible things happened to our people because you used it last time. Why do they want it to go away? They want it to go away because we kicked the crap out of them—OK?

”Friendly Fire” incident

Several British soldiers, operating two Scimitar tanks were wounded, and one killed, as a result of “friendly fire” by a US A-10 Thunderbolt pilot.[45] This incident provoked controversy in the UK media and was later judged to be an “unlawful killing”.

Other events

British paratroopers fought two companies of Iraqi infantry in the Rumaila oil fields, killing several hundred.[46]

Invasion of Basra

US military spokespeople announced that the British forces would conduct “smash and grab” raids against Hussein loyalists.[47] Using tanks, the British began to gain control over buildings and shantytown areas on the outskirts of the city.[48]

Eventually, a column of 120 retreating Iraqi tanks coalesced; it was mostly destroyed by UK and US bombs, as well as UK tank fire. 300 prisoners were taken in a battle outside the city.[49][50][51][52] This event was described as the largest British tank battle since World War II.[49]

British tanks (the British 7 Armoured Brigade, known as “Desert Rats”) entered city center on 6 April after repeated raids and shelling.[53][54]


By 23 April 2003, oil was flowing through pipelines from the Basra area.[55] In the following months, the US reported acts of sabotage against the oil production and transport operations in the area.[56]

On 4 July 2003, Wael Abdul Latif was appointed as Basra's provisional governor.[57][58]

In August, Basrans began mass demonstrations, which sometimes spilled over into riots. British soldiers in riot gear used rubber bullets against thousands of people filling the streets and throwing stones.[59]

In September 2003, a Basran named Baha Mousa died in British custody. Later investigation found that British soldiers had abused and tortured multiple detainees from the area.[60]


Itself victimized by bombings, the Red Cross withdrew from Basra in October 2003—exacerbating ongoing health issues.[61]

Unexploded ordnance

The battle left unexploded ordnance and weapons stockpiles throughout Basra and surrounding areas. These endanger children and other people who might trigger or encounter an accidental explosion.[62]

Health issues

Later investigation has found that Coalition bombers used heavy metals, such as lead and mercury. These metals have poisoned babies who were born in Basra after 2003, in some cases causing serious birth defects.[63] A 2012 study found that babies born in Basra during 2011 were 17 times more likely to suffer from birth defects than babies born in 1995. These defects most commonly involved damage to the central nervous system.[64][65]

Childhook leukemia rates have increased substantially.[66][67] Cancer rates have also increased overall.[68]

The epidemic of childhood sickness and cancer in southern Iraq has been attributed to Coalition use of depleted uranium munitions—in 2003 as well as 1991.[66] The Basrah area reportedly contains the country's densest concentration of sites contaminated by these weapons.[69] Doctors and environmental workers in Basrah had become aware of possible depleted uranium poisoning in the 1990s and begun remediation efforts; these were suspended when war broke out anew in 2003.[7]

Epidemiological studies have been scarce and uncertainty remains about the causes and solutions to the poor health of the Basra population.[70] Doctors and government officials have identified this uncertainty itself as a source of anxiety, fear, and distrust.[71] . Cleanup workers who later found depleted uranium rounds were asked to wear gloves and mask, to place any rounds in water, seal the containers, and deliver them to a nearby UK Army Base.[72] Contaminated scrap metal also represents a major source for possible expoure.[73]

The UK Ministry of Defense later released information on 51 locations in Basrah Province where it used depleted uranium munitions.[74]


  1. "Wages of War—Appendix 1. Survey of reported Iraqi combatant fatalities in the 2003 war". Commonwealth Institute of Cambridge. Retrieved 21 February 2010. 
  2. "Operation Iraqi Freedom: Iraq Coalition Casualties: Military Fatalities". Archived from the original on 26 March 2010. Retrieved 21 February 2010. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Jonathan Finer, “Key oil field falls to Marines”, The Age, 23 March 2003.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Richard Norton-Taylor, Ewen MacAskill, Terry Macalister and Rory McCarthy, “British elite troops push towards Basra”, The Guardian, 20 March 2003.
  5. Chuck Sudetic, “The Betrayal of Basra”, Mother Jones, November/December 2001.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Jeremy Scahill, “Report from Basra: Iraq's Oil Belt Prepares for War”, Iraq Journal, 3 November 2002.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Zwijnenburg, State of Uncertainty (2013), p. 28.
  8. Robert Hirschfield, “An Arab-American Priest, Depleted Uranium, and Iraq”, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 2005.
  9. US warplanes bomb Iraq's Basra airport”, Press Trust of India, 27 September 2002.
  10. Paul McGeough , “In the way of the war”, Sydney Morning Herald, 1 March 2003.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Kevin Canfield and Tara Weiss, “Quick Taking of Basra May Also Help War Image”, Hartford Courant, 19 March 2003.
  12. Brendan O'Neill, “Military disengagement”, Spiked, 18 March 2003.
  13. The battle for Basra”, Scotsman, 22 March 2003.
  14. Allied forces take Basra airport, bridge”, WIST (AP), 20 March 2003.
  15. Robert Fox, “The war has started”, London Evening Standard, 19 March 2003.
  16. Flames light up sky above Basra”, IOL News, 20 March 2003.
  17. Ellen Knickmyer & Ranjan Roy, “(b)loomin' battleFIELDS”, Economic Times, 23 March 2003.
  18. David Willis , “Applause as Marines enter Basra”, BBC, 22 March 2003.
  19. Keith B. Richburg, "Basra standoff raises concern about Baghdad", Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 30 March 2003.
  20. Richard Sanders, "The myth of 'shock and awe': why the Iraqi invasion was a disaster", The Telegraph (UK), 19 March 2013.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Center for Economic and Social Rights, “US/UK Military Forces Risk Committing War Crimes by Depriving Civilians of Safe WaterSpecial Report: Water Under Siege in Iraq: US/UK Military Forces Risk Committing War Crimes by Depriving Civilians of Safe Water”, 6 April 2003.
  22. David Batty, “Iraqi city suffers water shortage”, The Guardian, 24 March 2003.
  23. Karen MacPherson, "Residents in Basra could die of thirst without relief supplies", Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 28 March 2003.
  24. Shaoni Bhattacharya, "Catastrophe looms as Basra remains without water", New Scientist, 25 March 2003.
  25. ”US, UK shell Nasiriyah homes, obstruct Basra water – Al-Jazeera”, BBC Monitoring Newsfile, 27 March 2003; accessed via ProQuest, 7 June 2013.
  26. Hisham Melhem, “Wolfowitz Interview with Al Arabiya”, Al Arabiya, 31 March 2003; reproduced at
  27. Ewen MacAskill, “Crisis in Basra as troops fail to create corridor for aid”, The Guardian 25 March 2003.
  28. Andrew Taylor, “'Looting and neglect' cut Basra's power and water”, Financial Times, 30 April 2003; accessed via ProQuest, 8 June 2013.
  29. Arundhati Roy, “Mesopotamia. Babylon. The Tigris and Euphrates”, The Guardian (reproduced in Outlook India), 6 April 2003.
  30. James Dao, "British seek revolution in Basra", Sydney Morning Herald, 31 March 2003.
  31. Docherty & Garlasco, “Off Target” (2003), pp. 28–33 .
  32. UK forces uses cluster bombs: British forces say cluster bombs have been used in the Iraq conflict but not in built up areas in and around Basra.”, BBC, 3 April 2003.
  33. ”Chiefs accused over 'cluster' bomb use”, Daily Mail,
  34. UK troops deny using cluster bombs near Basra”, IOL News, 3 April 2003.
  35. Hansard Debate Archive, UK Parliament, 7 April 2003.
  36. Richard Norton-Taylor, “Basra troops used cluster bombs”, The Guardian, 29 May 2003.
  37. Docherty & Garlasco, “Off Target” (2003), p. 82.
  38. Docherty & Garlasco, “Off Target” (2003), p. 104.
  39. Docherty & Garlasco, “Off Target” (2003), pp. 90–92 .
  40. Docherty & Garlasco, “Off Target” (2003), p. 107.
  41. Docherty & Garlasco, “Off Target” (2003), p. 111.
  42. Docherty & Garlasco, “Off Target” (2003), p. 109.
  43. Docherty & Garlasco, “Off Target” (2003), pp. 70–72.
  44. Michael Woods, “Army stands by depleted uranium use: Weapons penetrate armor”, Toledo Blade, 25 March 2003.
  45. Wounded British soldiers condemn US 'cowboy' pilot”, The Guardian, 30 March 2003.
  46. 12 explosions hit western Baghdad”, RTE News, 31 March 2003.
  47. Mark Nicholson, “UK troops to launch 'smash and grab' raids on Basra”, Financial Times, 26 March 2003; accessed via ProQuest, 7 June 2013. “British troops plan to launch 'smash and grab' raids into Basra to seek out and kill leaders of pro-Saddam paramilitary groups. They aim to quell the sporadic but often fierce resistance that has hindered attempts to pacify Iraq's second city. ”
  48. Luke Harding, “Eight militiamen killed in battle for Basra”, The Guardian, 5 April 2003, p. 7; accessed via ProQuest, 7 June 2013.
  49. 49.0 49.1 UK forces destroy breakaway tank squadron”, The Guardian, 27 March 2003.
  50. Tim Butcher, "Battle for the streets of Basra", The Guardian, 31 March 2003.
  51. "British attack column of Iraqi tanks near Basra", PBS, 27 March 2003.
  52. Tom Newton Dunn, "War Watch: Iraqi tank column breaks out of Basra", The Guardian, 31 March 2003; pooled report quoting Major Mick Green.
  53. Sarah Crown, “British troops move into Basra”, The Guardian, 6 April 2003 (updated 2:30am 7 April).
  54. Rosalind Russell, "British tanks shoot their way into Basra", IOL News, 6 April 2003.
  55. Oil flows in southern Iraq; some electricity back in Baghdad”, USA Today (AP) 23 April 2003.
  56. Michael R. Gordon, “Iraqi Saboteurs' Goal: Disrupt the Occupation”, New York Times (reproduced by CNN), 28 June 2003.
  57. ”Profiles of Iraq's Governing Council members”, Lebanon Wire (via AP), 16 July 2003.
  58. Judge Elected Basra Governor”, Arab News (via AFP), 7 July 2003.
  59. Philip Sherwell and Colin Freeman, “Seven British troops injured in Basra riot”, The Telegraph, 10 August 2003.
  60. British soldier admits he is war criminal after Iraq death”, Scotsman, 20 September 2006.
  61. Docherty & Garlasco, “Off Target” (2003), p. 122.
  62. Docherty & Garlasco, “Off Target” (2003), pp. 118–120.
  63. Jessica Elgot, “Iraqi Birth Defects: Fallujah And Basra Babies Brain Damaged After UK-US Bombardment, Study Finds”, Huffington Post UK, 15 October 2012; updated 5 February 2013.
  64. M. Al-Sabbak, S. Sadik Ali, O. Savabi, G. Savabi, S. Dastgiri, & M. Savabieasfahani; “Metal Contamination and the Epidemic of Congenital Birth Defects in Iraqi Cities”, Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 89, 2012.
  65. Dan Murphy, “Is the detritus of the Iraq war harming the babies of Fallujah?”, Christian Science Monitor, 29 October 2012.
  66. 66.0 66.1 Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, “Epidemic of birth defects in Iraq and our duty as public health researchers”, Al Jazeera, 15 March 2013.
  67. Hagopian A, Lafta R, Hassan J, Davis S, Mirick D, Takaro T; “Trends in childhood leukemia in Basrah, Iraq, 1993-2007”, American Journal of Public Health 100(6), June 2010.
  68. Jawad Al-Ali, “Epidemiological Study at the South of Iraq (Basrah City)”, Cancer Trend in Basrah, Iraq, 12 September 2006.
  69. Mike Ludwig, “Depleted Uranium Contamination is Still Spreading in Iraq”, Truthout, 19 March 2013.
  70. Zwijnenburg, State of Uncertainty (2013), p. 45.
  71. Zwijnenburg, State of Uncertainty (2013), pp. 28.
  72. Zwijnenburg, State of Uncertainty (2013), p. 30.
  73. Zwijnenburg, State of Uncertainty (2013), pp. 46–48.
  74. Zwijnenburg, State of Uncertainty (2013), p. 19.


  • Docherty, Bonnie, and Marc E. Garlasco. Off Target: The Conduct of the War and Civilian Casualties in Iraq. New York: Human Rights Watch, 2003.
  • Zwijnenburg, Wim. In a State of Uncertainty. IKV Pax Christi, January 2013.



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