An investigation was under way today into the deaths of three Royal Military Police servicemen in an ambush in Iraq’s second city Basra.
Gunshots were fired at the Red Caps early yesterday morning as they made their way through a main street in an armed convoy of two vehicles.
A fourth soldier remained in hospital with serious injuries following the assault, which came less than a fortnight after the death of another British soldier in the area.
The killings are a further blow for the Royal Military Police (RMP) which suffered its worst casualty toll for more than 50 years in June, when six soldiers were killed.
As an investigation was launched into the deaths, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was being kept informed at his country residence, Chequers.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “Our thoughts are with the families at this time. This again shows the courage and risks taken by our armed forces to build a better Iraq.”
The attack happened as the uniformed soldiers, who were armed, made a routine journey through Basra at around 8.30am local time (5.30am Irish time) yesterday, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said.
Meanwhile, nearly 300 miles away, British diplomats had left their Baghdad embassy following a “credible threat” of attack.
Reports at the scene in Basra said a bomb was thrown at the troops from a red pick-up truck but the MoD said there was no evidence yet to suggest such a device was used.
An MoD spokeswoman in the port city said: “A convoy of two vehicles were travelling through Basra in a routine movement when they were ambushed by gunmen from a pick-up truck.
“The convoy consisted of one military Land Rover and a civilian four wheel drive.
“All members of the convoy were wearing military uniforms and were armed.
“Three soldiers were killed and one seriously injured in the unprovoked attack.
“The soldier has been taken to hospital for treatment and the area cordoned off.
“An investigation has been started.
“This is a difficult time for all and our priority now is to inform the families of those concerned.”
The condition of the fourth soldier was said last night to be stable.
The strike came after US President George W Bush warned that Iraq was “turning out to be a continuing battle in the war on terrorism”.
Mr Bush said on Friday that “a foreign element” of “al Qaida-type fighters” was moving into the country.
Yesterday, armed forces minister Adam Ingram said he was “shocked” and “saddened” by the “terrorist attack” but it would not derail the campaign.
“We will do all we can, working with the Iraqi police authorities, to ensure those responsible are tracked down and brought to justice.”
Experts warned that the attacks marked the early days of an insurgency campaign against the occupying forces.
Major Charles Heyman, editor of Jane’s World Armies, said it was “just a matter of time” before such an attack took place.
He said the last two weeks had seen “a good indication of what is to come”.
Yesterday’s deaths were predictable, as was a low level insurgency campaign against the occupying forces in Basra and southern Iraq for the foreseeable future, he said.
“There’s no way you can get away from it – it is desperate news.
“Basra has been simmering for some time....We are going to need a totally different level of security,” he said.
The deaths take the toll to 10 killed since President Bush declared major fighting over on May 1.