OUTSIDE BASRA, Iraq -- Women clutching babies and men gripping overstuffed duffel bags had gathered at the Azubayr Bridge yesterday, hoping to flee the tumultuous city of Basra, when a signal went up from Iraqi scouts hidden among riverfront mud huts.
Within seconds, paramilitaries in pickup trucks opened fire on the British forces manning the bridge checkpoint. From another direction, mortar shells rained down on the British, whose huge Challenger tanks returned fire.
Caught in the crossfire, panicked refugees surged toward the British, who struggled to defend themselves and control the crowd at the same time.
The skirmish -- in which the Iraqis made use of human shields, mobile weapons and panic -- showed the problems facing British soldiers as they attempt to take Basra, Iraq's second-largest city. It also made clear some of the pitfalls U.S. forces would confront in a battle for Baghdad.
"In a way, we can't really do an awful lot," said Maj. Peter MacMullen with the 1st Battalion of Irish Guards, sitting on a curb as the firefight raged at the bridge on the edge of town. "The Iraqis work in groups of two or three, driving white vehicles and dressed in civilian clothes. They have no position, they're moving and use the slums to our left and right, making it difficult to fire back."
At the same time, British military leaders say they must move forward.
"We've got to go in," said Maj. Duncan McSporran of the 1st Fusiliers, whose unit secured one of the main bridges into Basra several days ago in a 36-hour operation that included thwarting an Iraqi attempt to blow up the crossing with explosives.
The British say they expect to enter the center of Basra soon, after a week of shelling it from the perimeter. Yesterday, they established forward observation posts from which they plan to call artillery strikes against members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and paramilitary squads. They also demolished a number of statues and murals of Hussein, the trappings of the president's cult of personality.
And in a raid into southern Basra, British commandos captured five Iraqi officers, and killed a colonel. One British Royal Marine died in the fighting.
Iraqis, however, still control the center of Basra and continue their attacks on the outskirts. The Iraqi objectives in such skirmishes seem to be at least twofold, MacMullen said: to move fedayeen fighters and weapons through checkpoints during the confusion and to intimidate civilians attempting to leave Basra.
The security situation is compounded by the fact that many people are trying to get into Basra to find relatives, carry in supplies or return home.
"I'm scared to go to Basra, but I've got to get my family and get out," said Abdulla Aziz, 25, father of five children. "I went out to get food and got stuck."
For several days, British forces blocked men between the ages of 20 and 40 from returning, fearing they would join the fight on the side of the Iraqi military. Yesterday, however, several hundred frustrated young men overwhelmed the barrier and surged past the soldiers, chanting pro-Hussein slogans as they ran. In the chaos, an old man was run over by a donkey cart.
"There is a fear they'll rejoin," said Capt. Sam Devitt of the Irish Guard's 1st Battalion. "But it's a checkpoint, not a blockade. And you're not going to win, after all, if you do that."
British soldiers and Basra residents say civilians in the city or returning there are under enormous pressure from Iraqi soldiers, police and fedayeen to attack U.S. and British forces. In some cases, they're offered bribes; in others, relatives are held hostage.
"Civilians are afraid to leave their houses because police wearing civilian clothes form patrols with fedayeen," said Nathim Jaber, 34, a fleeing oil-industry worker. "They find people, give them a weapon and force them to fight."
In the past few days, the fedayeen have started offering people more than $10,000 in promissory notes for signing up, Jaber said, although the IOUs are probably not redeemable.
MacMullen said his unit recently stopped a man returning to Basra who said he had to fight the invading forces or his family would be killed. The British refused to let him pass, but a few days later he was killed after he slipped in by another route and participated in an attack.
Fleeing Basra residents said fedayeen, Baath Party loyalists and Iraqi military and paramilitary fighters have taken over schools and other civic buildings for use as bunkers, ammo dumps and tank storage. Jalal Abdel Karim, 17, said there were now tanks in the recess area of the Al Marbad Elementary School, along with gas masks and mortar rounds inside.
Some fleeing Iraqis expressed doubts that U.S. and British forces can defeat Hussein's fighters in house-to-house combat for Basra or Baghdad.
"If they go into Basra, there's going to be a slaughterhouse," Aris Darraj said. "Fedayeen are very good at street wars. I don't think the British and Americans are brave enough."
But McSporran and other members of the 1st Fusiliers disagreed. "The difficulty is fighting in the city, but that's what we're trained for," said McSporran, whose unit cut its teeth in Somalia, Kosovo and Cyprus.
Mark Magnier is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.