Gunmen clash with security forces in Iraq's Basra

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BAGHDAD, Oct 23 (Reuters) Leaders of political parties in Basra, Iraq's southern oil hub, held urgent talks today to calm tensions in the volatile city after gunmen clashed with Iraqi security forces, the British military said.

Details of the fighting were sketchy, but British military spokesman Major Jamie Halford-Macleod said shots had been fired at the Shatt-al-Arab Hotel, headquarters of the Iraqi security forces, in the north of Iraq's second city.

Halford-Macleod said gunmen had also opened fire on the provincial joint coordination centre, which British forces pulled out of in late August as part of their withdrawal from the city centre to their main base on the outskirts of Basra.

The riverside city of more than 1 million people is strategically vital as the hub of southern oil fields that produce nearly all of the government's revenue and is the centre for imports and exports through the Gulf.

It has witnessed a turf war between rival Shi'ite groups, including supporters of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the powerful Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and smaller Fadhila party, which controls the governorate.

Halford-Macleod said Major-General Mohan al-Firaiji, commander of Iraqi security operations in Basra, was meeting leaders of political parties. Violence appeared to have subsided.

''We maintain overall responsibility for Basra province and will respond as deemed necessary. Certainly there is no request from General Mohan for any assistance from us,'' he said.

British forces are keeping a lower profile in Basra since they pulled out in September in what was seen as an important test of the Iraqi security forces' ability to prevent the city becoming a battleground for competing Shi'ite factions.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said earlier this month that British forces in Iraq would be halved to 2,500 from spring next year.

Analysts fear that as British troops withdraw, the rival Shi'ite factions will intensify their battle for political supremacy, possibly drawing in neighbouring Iran.

REUTERS GL PM2135

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