AOAV: all our reports

A Tale of Two Cities: The battle of Basra (2003)

AOAV’s report A Tale of Two Cities explores the use of explosive weapons by UK and US forces in Basra and Fallujah respectively, 2003-04. It has been divided into chapters in this series. This chapter focuses on the UK’s deployment of explosive weapons during the Battle for Basra (March-April 2003).

To read the full report see here.

Basra, 2003

The southern city of Basra is one of the largest in Iraq. Predominantly Shia, in March 2003, Basra’s population was estimated to be between 1-1.5 million.

Basra was heavily shelled during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988. For many years after the conflict ended the city suffered from its effects, with intermittent electricity and poor sanitation. Basra was again bombed in 1991 after a failed uprising against Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Before entering Iraq in 2003, UK planning noted that while there was an existing level of popular opposition to Saddam Hussein’s regime, any potential support for the coalition was contingent on avoiding civilian casualties. While UK forces were expected to meet with relatively-limited opposition, “We have no specific intelligence on the instinctive reaction of Basra’s civil populace to UK presence. Much will depend upon the circumstances in which control is established (e.g. destruction of civil infrastructure and civil casualties) and how Basra is subsequently administered.”

The Battle for Basra began on 21 March 2003, and ended on 6 April 2003 when UK troops entered the city centre.

AOAV IGw Iraq Basra

Rattling the Cage

All coalition forces participating in the initial intervention were led by US Central Command (CENTCOM), with British forces given the task of securing Basra.

Several British regiments were involved in the fighting for Basra, including the British 7th Armoured Brigade (also known as the Desert Rats), the Black Watch and 1st Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. Other regiments and units that pushed into Basra included the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and the Royal Marine Commandos.US air support was prominent in the fighting and United States Marines tanks led the tank battles outside Basra.

“What we did today was rattle the cage. We went in, pushed further, trying to create a response to draw the enemy towards us so we could fight more on our own terms.”

UK soldier, speaking to British journalist Janine di Giovanni, Basra, April 2003, “The Place at the End of the World,” (2006)

By 23 March, after just three days of tank battles in open areas outside the city itself, Basra was surrounded and its outskirts secured. For almost three weeks UK forces waited outside Basra, finally taking the city on 6 April 2003.


UK forces placed a loosely-formed cordon around Basra, allowing civilians to flee the city or to leave in order to bring back food. As the UK military ringed the city, residents of Basra began to flee, fearing the increasingly-desperate tactics of Iraqi militia forces, and the threat of future bombing of civilian areas from where Iraqi tanks were based. All the [Iraq loyalist] artillery and tanks are near our houses,” said retired engineer Mohammed on escaping the city. “And they are firing from there.”

The importance of restraint echoed throughout the planning and conduct of the Basra operation. Limits on RoE among UK forces meant that soldiers were “desperate to be allowed to take on Saddam’s forces without the tight restrictions imposed on them.

British commanders avoided entering the city itself to engage Iraqi forces within populated areas of Basra, where “the British armor [sic.] would be nullified.” The choice to remain outside the city may have saved both civilian and military personnel lives in the long run. Explosive weapons were used during this stand-off period, with the Royal Artillery using a Phoenix surveillance drone to direct artillery and air strikes against military targets primarily removed from the populated heartland of Basra.

Tight controls

The UK military tightly controlled the process of using heavy explosive weapons. Only one regiment, the 3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery, could use 155mm artillery in the battle for Basra, and each single firing mission could only be authorised by the regiment commander. This level of control was higher than had been the norm in UK artillery doctrine. While UK forces fired 9,153 155mm artillery rounds during the battle, the city itself was treated as a “restricted fire area”, by the commander in question. The UK approach to the Basra operation was “conditioned by the need to avoid large UK or civilian casualties, and progress will be determined by effects and events, rather than a set timetable.

The British were to remain outside the city, as one British official described it at the time: “The forces in Basra are being engaged. We’re not going in. We wait for them to come to us. Where we get targets of opportunity, we take it. It’s a waiting game.”


The UK in Basra deployed the AS90 heavy artillery gun, which fires heavy 155mm shells, still among the largest common artillery shells in modern use. The AS90 can fire a burst of three rounds in less than ten seconds, an intense rate of six rounds a minute for three minutes, and a sustained rate of two rounds a minute. Each AS90 holds 48 shells, which it can fire over distances of 25km.

The UK also used the L118 105mm Light Gun, which although smaller than the AS90, has a faster rate of fire, and so can launch more explosive shells at a target in a shorter space of time (twelve rounds in a minute). The long range and relatively wide dispersion of even the most sophisticated artillery systems means that their use in populated areas is likely to result in unwanted ‘collateral damage’ as shells fall short or wide of their target, landing among homes or businesses.

We are finding collateral damage difficult. We get clearance to fire, a computer tells us where we are firing in relation to schools and houses, but the decision is taken on proportionality and military necessity.” Major Ian Bell, commander of Royal Horse Artillery batteries outside Basra

Tank battles

The UK deployed Challenger 2 and the US mostly used the M1A1 and M1A2 Abrams tanks in Iraq. These tanks are equipped with a powerful main gun that fires a range of 120mm shells. These include High-Explosive Squash Head (HESH) rounds, which squash a ‘plaster’ of explosive across a building or target on impact. The widened surface area and the direct contact means that when the explosive in the shell detonates a fraction of a second later, it projects a violent blast wave that can cause substantial damage. The Challenger 2 can fire up to eight of these rounds a minute and shoots at speeds of up to 25 mph.

As the stand-off progressed, the remaining Iraqi troops inside the city lost patience and tried to provoke UK troops by launching sorties out of the city with tanks and armed vehicles as well as mortaring positions.

On 27 March 2003, Iraqi Soviet-made T-55 tanks and armoured personnel carriers streamed out of the city of Basra, heading towards British forces on the Al Faw peninsula. From the ground, the convoy was reportedly pounded by 155mm AS90 heavy artillery and 105mm light field guns. The Iraqi tanks dispersed, and became vulnerable in the open countryside, which had turned into a muddy quagmire after torrential rain.

When UK Challenger tanks were deployed to fire their shells, it was to destroy 14 Iraqi tanks that had moved out into a wooded open area, away from the population of Basra. The engagement on 27 March was described as the largest tank battle involving British forces since the Second World War.

UK troops and tanks only entered Basra city itself on 6 April, after spending nearly three weeks on the outskirts of the city. By drawing Iraqi forces out from the city, rather than taking the fight to the opposition inside populated areas, the risk to civilians inside the city was diminished.

“[g]iven the heavily populated nature of Basra, and the number of restricted and no fire areas imposed from higher headquarters, I treated the whole of Basra as a restricted fire area.” Major General Nicholas Ashmore, commander of 3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery, 2001-2004

It would, however, be an over-simplification to imply that UK forces did not shell populated areas. Undoubtedly, UK forces ordered the deployment of explosive weapons in populated areas; but it is also clear that forces were largely kept from more intense escalations in engagements in Basra.

While there were civilian casualties in the city during this time, the strong suggestion endures from soldiers and observers alike that the impact on civilians would have been far greater if the military response of UK forces had been more aggressive. Similarly while there was damage to infrastructure through British shelling and aerial bombing, it was not as widespread or as severe as that documented in Fallujah, as this report will go on to describe.

Crucially, the UK example of practice in Basra illustrates that protecting one’s own troops and protecting the lives of civilians are not incompatible goals. It is possible to achieve both through a measure of restraint in the use of force.

Air strikes: Munition Selection

Coalition air strikes in support of UK ground troops in Iraq are also worth examining. In the first month of the conflict 29,199 munitions were dropped in Iraq. Of these, 19,948 were guided munitions (68%). In comparison in the Gulf conflict in 1991, just eight per cent of all bombs dropped were precision-guided munitions.

The most commonly dropped bomb during the opening month of conflict in Iraq was the GBU-12 Paveway II (7,114 bombs, 24% of all aerial munitions deployed).

The GBU-12 weighs 225kg/500lb, of which 89kg is high-explosive. It is based on the general-purpose Mk-82, but comes with a laser guidance system. The Mk-82 is the classic ‘dumb’ bomb. It was also the second most-commonly dropped bomb in this period in Iraq (5,504 bombs, 19% of the total).

The majority of air attacks in Basra were carried out by US fighter jets. In one strike overnight on 29 March, two US F-15E Strike Eagles, using laser-guided munitions, destroyed a building where 200 suspected paramilitary members were meeting. Reports indicated that US aircraft had used a delayed fuse bomb that first penetrated the building and then detonated within. This was selected in an effort to minimise the wider blast effect.

A 2003 report by Human Rights Watch found that both US and UK forces took significant steps to protect civilians from their air strikes. “The United States and United Kingdom recognized that employment of precision-guided munitions alone was not enough to provide civilians with adequate protection. They employed other methods to help minimize civilian casualties, such as bombing at night when civilians were less likely to be on the streets, using penetrator munitions and delayed fuzes [sic.] to ensure that most blast and fragmentation damage was kept within the impact area, and using attack angles that took into account the locations of civilian facilities such as schools and hospitals.”

Yet not all strikes were as carefully planned and engaged as better practice would recommend.

On 5 April 2003, a US aircraft bombed a building in Basra in an attempt to kill Lieutenant General Ali Hassan al-Majid, otherwise known as ‘Chemical Ali’. In the attack, 17 people living on either side of the building bombed by American forces were killed. All 17 were members of two families. Both families denied any Iraqi leadership presence in the area, and had not seen al-Majid.

It is thought that the munition used in the attack was a 500-pound laser-guided bomb. Abid Hamudi, a 70-year-old retired oil industry worker who lost ten members of his family in the blast, told the Washington Post: “Ten lives are gone. The house was completely destroyed. You came to save us, to protect us. That’s what you said. It’s now the contrary. Innocent people are killed.”

Human Rights Watch concluded: “The collateral damage estimate done on the targets appears to have allowed for a high level of civilian damage. This attack may have been approved due to the perceived military value of al-Majid. Had smaller weapons been used, however, many civilian lives would have been spared.

IWM (Lynx helicopter fires rocket into Basra)

Lynx helicopter fires rocket into outskirts of Basra (Imperial War Museum)

Wide area effects

The increase in the use of precision-guided munitions may have helped to reduce the margin for error in one part of a weapon delivery system, but it does not eradicate the fundamental source of threat to civilians. When used in populated areas these weapons still retain the capacity to cause significant civilian harm.  For example, heavy aircraft bombs with a large blast yield will affect a wide-area regardless of how accurately they are delivered.

Moreover, technology is only as effective as the rules that govern their use and the information that guides it. When used in populated areas, even the most advanced guidance technology does not entirely remove the potential for terrible and unwanted harm to civilians.

Overall AOAV’s analysis of Iraq Body Count’s data has shown that a minimum of 448-593 civilians were killed in Basra between 20 March and 9 April 2003 by coalition forces. At least another thousand were injured. Not all of these deaths were caused by explosive weapons, but many of these deaths are attributed not to UK actions but to aerial bombing. During the first three days of fighting around Basra, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported that hospitals received around 100 war-wounded a day.

Six years after the fighting in Basra, the UK paid more than £9 million in compensation to Iraqi civilians who had been injured, lost loved ones or had property damaged between 2003 and 2009 due to UK military operations in Iraq.

Cluster bombs

Both US and UK forces used cluster munitions during the early phases of the Iraq conflict, launched from air and the ground. Cluster munitions contain smaller explosive submunitions which are designed to cover a large area. Indiscriminate in nature, these weapons were banned by the international community in 2008.

UK forces used cluster munitions in and around Basra, decisions that were condemned as poor weapons choices.” In one neighbourhood, artillery targeted Iraqi tanks hidden in a date grove in the middle of civilian homes and launched cluster munitions. According to Human Rights Watch investigators, these munitions blanketed a much larger area, injuring nine members of one family. It emerged that the Royal Artillery fired more than 2,000 ground-launched cluster bombs around Basra, and at least 66 BL755 bombs were dropped from UK planes.In total 2,170 cluster bombs were launched by the UK, while the US deployed 10,780 bombs, collectively containing almost 2 million explosive submunitions.

The UK has since signed and ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and in April 2014 finally completed the destruction of its entire stockpile of more than 190,000 cluster munitions and over 38 million submunitions.

The US, however, has not yet signed up to the treaty at the time of publication.