LONDON, June 24 — In the first serious attack on British troops since the end of major hostilities in Iraq, six soldiers were killed and several others injured in two "serious incidents" north of Basra in southern Iraq, the Defense Ministry here said today.
The relatively high number of fatalities — making it one of the deadliest days for allied forces since the fall of Baghdad — threatened to raise new questions about Britain's deployment of troops alongside United States troops in Iraq.
British troopers guard a hospital in Basra, 600 kilometers south of Baghdad, Iraq Tuesday June 24, 2003. Attackers fired on British forces in neighboring Amarah, killing six troopers and wounding eight others in the deadliest confrontation for coalition forces since the fall of Saddam Hussein. (AP Photo/Nabil Al-Jurani)
Prime Minister Tony Blair is already under sustained assault from his political opponents for his attempts to justify the invasion with what has become known as the "dodgy dossier" of supposed evidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction that presented a serious threat to this country. It was published last January.
Indeed, testifying before a parliamentary panel today, Jack Straw, the foreign Secretary, said that the dossier, parts of which had been taken from a student's 12-year-old doctoral thesis posted on the Internet, had become an embarrassment and should never have been published.
"This episode has been of very great embarrassment to the government," Mr. Straw said. "It would have been better not to have published it."
The minister was speaking before news began to leak out of a serious incident involving British troops near the southern Iraqi town of Amara, on the Tigris River some 100 miles north of Iraq's southern port of Basra, which has been in British hands since the invasion. The attack raised worries about the prospects for British patrolling of southern Iraq.
Up until today, British troops, operating in the predominantly Shiite Muslim southern region of Iraq traditionally opposed to Saddam Hussein, had been generally spared the lethal ambushes that have become almost routine in American-occupied areas further north.
Indeed, British news reporters in Iraq said British troops had taken to patrolling without helmets and body armor, in contrast to American troops around Baghdad who have been facing an increasing number of attacks.
Defense Minister Geoff Hoon, speaking before an urgent meeting with Mr. Blair and Mr.Straw, said: "I can confirm there have been two serious incidents near Amara. Those incidents have resulted in the death of six British soldiers and a number of casualties, two of which are serious."
He did not identify the dead soldiers by name or military unit, saying their names would not be released until next of kin had been informed.
Details of the ambushes remained unclear tonight, although Mr. Hoon promised to give a fuller explanation to parliament later.
A spokesman for Mr. Blair said six soldiers had been killed in one incident, while, in a second attack nearby, a routine patrol of paratroopers came under fire, with one person wounded and two vehicles destroyed. A helicopter flying in reinforcements also came under attack and seven people were wounded. All the wounded had been rescued, spokesman said.
Asked if the the British soldiers could have come under so-called "friendly fire", Colonel P.J. Lewis, a British military spokesman in Baghdad, was quoted as saying "hostile fire was definitely involved."
Other British officers said the attack was highly unusual.
"It's normally very quiet down here," said British Army Lt. Col. Ronnie McCourt, in Basra, according to the Associated Press. "We've been here nearly two months now and this is the first time people have been deliberately, consciously shooting at us."
President Bush declared the end of major combat hostilities on May 1, and since then at least 18 American soldiers have been killed in attacks. The British death toll from the coalition invasion on March 20 to the formal end of hostilities stood at 31, 16 of them in accidents. The last British combat death was reported on April 6. At the height of the fighting, Britain had committed some 45,000 troops to the war, but that number is now down to around 16,000.
United States forces have lost 17 soldiers in hostile actions and 27 to other causes, a United States military spokesman in Baghdad said.
The relatively low number of British war deaths spared the government some criticism, but today's fatalities have emerged in a different political atmosphere, one in which Mr. Blair is losing popularity because of allegations that he misled or even lied to Britons about the reasons for the war.
A poll last week showed Mr. Blair's popularity falling and his Labor Party's lead over the opposition conservatives slipping to its lowest in 30 months. Another survey suggested that around one third of Britons are less trustful of the Prime Minister because of the debate over weapons of mass destruction.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company