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Iraqi police protest British raid

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Waving pistols and assault rifles, Iraqi police officers led an angry anti-British demonstration in the southern city of Basra on Wednesday.

The provincial council voted unanimously to stop cooperating with British forces in the area until Britain apologizes for storming a police station to free two of its soldiers.

At least 200 people, mostly officers who work in the police station that was damaged in the raid, rallied outside Basra's police headquarters, demanding an official apology from Britain and the resignation of Basra's police chief, Hassan Sawadi, Iraqi officials said.

Later, Basra's 41-member provincial council voted unanimously to "stop dealing with the British forces working in Basra" until it receives an apology for the raid Monday, The Associated Press reported.

In the raid, British tanks crashed through the police station's outer wall and freed two officers who had been detained by the Iraqi police.

In an effort to ease tensions, the Iraqi prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, made a joint appearance in London with Britain's defense secretary, declaring that the incident was being investigated and "will not affect relations" between the countries.

It was not clear what effect the provincial council's vote to stop cooperating with the British would have, or whether it would include an end to cooperation by the police. In addition to an apology, the council demanded that the British provide compensation for the families of those killed or wounded in the raid, the AP reported.

The details of the raid and its origins remain murky, with British and Iraqi officials offering different accounts. British military commanders and government officials have said the Iraqi police handed the men over to Shiite militia members, who largely control the Iraqi police and military in Basra. After breaking into the police station, British officials said, British soldiers found the two men in a nearby house. Initially, some Iraqi officials confirmed that account.

But on Wednesday, Iraq's interior minister, Bayan Jabr, disputed the British account, telling the BBC that the soldiers had not been handed over to anyone else and that the British had acted on a rumor.

A spokesman for Muhammad al-Waili, the governor of Basra province, said the same thing in a telephone interview, adding that the British were "claiming that to justify their illegal behavior."

The arrest and detention of the British officers, who were in Arab dress, was handled appropriately, said the spokesman, who agreed to discuss the episode only on condition of anonymity. A judge issued an arrest warrant and informed both the Basra governor and the City Council about the case, he said.

He said that the Iraqi police had been justified in arresting and holding the men, who had opened fire after being stopped at a checkpoint.