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Four British soldiers were killed Thursday in an ambush in southern Iraq and Prime Minister Tony Blair says Teheran's meddling in Iraq could lead Britain "to reflect on our relationship with Iran." The US military reported the death of five more soldiers.
A US Army helicopter went down south of the capital but all nine aboard survived, officials said.
Blair raised the possibility that elements linked to Iran might have been behind the ambush, which he called "a terrorist act," but he added that it was too early to make a specific allegation against Teheran.
The four British deaths - the biggest loss of life for British forces in more than four months - came a day after Iran released 15 British sailors seized two weeks ago off the Iraqi coast.
The British patrol struck a roadside bomb and was hit by small-arms fire about 2 a.m. in the Hayaniyah district in western Basra, 550 kilometers (340 miles) southeast of Baghdad, British military spokeswoman Capt. Katie Brown said.
In addition to the deaths of the British soldiers and the Kuwaiti civilian interpreter, another British soldier was seriously wounded in the attack, Brown said.
"Now it is far too early to say that the particular terrorist act that killed our forces was an act committed by terrorists that were backed by any elements of the Iranian regime, so I make no allegation in respect of that particular incident," Blair said.
The four deaths came as Britain celebrated the return home of 15 sailors and marines who had been held for 13 days by Iran in an incident that raised tensions between London and Teheran, as well as throughout the Middle East.
"Just as we rejoice at the return of our 15 service personnel so today we are also grieving and mourning for the loss of our soldiers in Basra, who were killed as the result of a terrorist act," Blair said.
The Basra explosion created a 3-meter (foot) deep crater. Hours after the attack, the helmet of a British soldier was still in the streets as well as dozens of spent bullets.
Police in Basra said the British patrol had earlier detained 1st Lt. Haidar al-Jazaeri of the Interior Ministry's Major Crimes unit, and were on their way back when they were attacked.
British Lt. Col. Kevin Stratford-Wright said he had no knowledge about such a detention, although he said British forces temporarily disarmed and questioned some Iraqi police as possible witnesses at a nearby checkpoint.
Four British forces were killed on Nov. 12 in an attack on a Multinational Forces boat patrol on the Shatt Al-Arab waterway in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city. Ten Britons also died in the Jan. 30, 2006, crash of a Hercules transport plane north of Baghdad.
Overall, the deaths raised to 140 the number of British forces to die in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion and to 109 the number killed in combat.
Blair has announced that Britain will withdraw about 1,600 troops from Iraq over the next few months and hopes to make other cuts to its 7,100-strong contingent by late summer.
The US military issued only a brief statement saying the helicopter went down and that the incident was under investigation.
An Iraqi army official said earlier that a Black Hawk helicopter had gone down after it came under fire at about 7:30 a.m. near the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Latifiyah, 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of Baghdad.
It was the ninth US helicopter to go down in Iraq this year, raising concern among the military that insurgents are using more sophisticated weapons or have figured out how to use the old arms in new and effective ways.
The Iraqi official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns, said the helicopter had gone down in a rural area and US forces had cordoned off the site. He said the militants apparently were using anti-aircraft heavy machine gun.
Latifiyah is part of the area dubbed the "Triangle of Death" because of frequent insurgent attacks.
The last helicopter incident occurred on March 1, when an OH-58 Kiowa made a "hard landing" in northern Iraq leaving the two crew members wounded. A week earlier, ground fire forced the downing of a Black Hawk north of Baghdad. Black Hawks are commonly used by the military for transportation in Iraq to avoid the dangers of roadside bombs and ambushes.
The US military also said the five US soldiers were killed in three separate attacks in the Baghdad area, where thousands of American forces have taken to the streets with their Iraqi counterparts as part of the operation to quell sectarian violence in the city of 6 million people.
A roadside bomb Wednesday killed two soldiers and wounded three others in southern Baghdad, while another blast north of the capital killed two soldiers and wounded one, the military said.
The fifth soldier was killed Tuesday by small-arms fire while on patrol in eastern Baghdad, a predominantly Shiite part of the city, the military said.
US military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell has expressed disappointment at the high level of violence in Iraq despite a drop in the overall death toll in Baghdad during a US-Iraqi security sweep that has entered its eighth week.
The Iraqi government said it was extending the operation to confront spreading violence elsewhere in the country.
In other violence, gunmen ambushed a prison checkpoint in northern Iraq on Thursday, killing 10 policemen, the officials said.
The attack occurred about 1 a.m. at a checkpoint near the Badush prison, some 70 kilometers southwest of Mosul, according to the officials.
The Iraqi government said Wednesday that it was extending a security crackdown in Baghdad to Mosul, 360 kilometers northwest of Baghdad, where violence has been on the rise after militants fled the operation in the capital.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Tuesday that parts of the city were completely under the control of militants.
Baqouba police also report finding bullet-riddled bodies of 20 men who were abducted at a checkpoint on Wednesday, apparent victims of so-called sectarian death squads.
Also Thursday, a car bomb also struck a Sunni Muslim television station, killing its assistant director and wounding 12 others, according to the Iraqi Islamic Party, which owns the station.
Nobody claimed responsibility for the attack, but members of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party have been targeted in the past by suspected insurgents because they have joined the US-backed political process.
Shortly after the explosion, the station went off the air, although a photo of a mosque with readings from the Koran appeared after a while.
Police said the car used in the attack was a small truck used to collect garbage and US and Iraqi troops had cordoned off the area.
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