A soldier from the British 1st Battalion Irish Guards offers cover to British Royal Engineers as they try to put out oil fires near Basra.
BASRA, Iraq -- For the first time, British troops established camp Thursday inside the southern city of Basra, where fierce battles have raged between the British, Iraqi fighters and residents who oppose Saddam Hussein's regime.
British soldiers, deployed outside Iraq's second-largest city for more than two weeks, crossed the Shatt al-Basra waterway, a 45-foot-deep manmade canal near the southern city limits. Infantry accompanied by armored personnel carriers, tanks and helicopters rumbled over Bridge 4, the most direct route into the city.
By nightfall, troops from the 1st Battalion Irish Guards were a few miles from the heart of the city of 1.3-million, British press reports said.
Iraqi soldiers and militiamen, who previously kept British forces at bay with daily barrages of rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, fled outlying positions, lighting oil trench fires as they went, said coalition military officials.
British Royal Engineers fought to extinguish the smoky fires along the south, which obscured the city from advancing coalition troops. Iraqi soldiers dug similar ditches outside Baghdad, filled them with oil and set them ablaze before running away.
Maj. Tom Scott said Royal Engineers were "trying to basically put the trench out and cut the supply of oil into the trench." Basra, near the rich southern oilfields, is strategically important because it is connected by a web of footbridges and canals that empty into the Shatt al-Arab River, which flows to the Persian Gulf.
Members of the Fedayeen Saddam militia and the ruling Baath party have been fighting British troops since last week. Early reports said Shiite residents were battling Hussein's soldiers inside Basra.
Residents were without water and electricity as the killing raged on. British troops had been stationed around Basra while American troops pressed north.
Insisting they were not surrounding the city, British troops did not attempt to occupy it because of intense Iraqi resistance -- and because they weren't sure how they would be greeted by residents.