BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqis had spirited the British prisoners away just as British armor crashed into the prison compound in the southern city of Basra.
After smashing through the exterior prison wall, British forces learned that Shiite Muslim militiamen and police had just moved the two jailed soldiers to a nearby house.
The British moved in and rescued their colleagues.
While authorities surveyed the damage, British and Iraqi officials exchanged stinging charges and countercharges about the operation Monday to free the two men who had been arrested by Basra police earlier that day.
British Defense Minister John Reid said his forces were "absolutely right" to act. But a spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said the operation was "very unfortunate."
The accusations came as the war in Iraq passed a sobering milepost. U.S. officials reported 12 more Americans were killed -- eight of them members of the armed forces, raising to more than 1,900 the number of U.S. service members who have died in the country since the invasion.
A Diplomatic Security agent attached to the U.S. State Department and three private American security guards were killed when their convoy was hit by a suicide car bomber Monday in the northern city of Mosul, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said. The four were attached to the U.S. Embassy's regional office in Mosul.
The latest American deaths raised the overall toll to 1,907.
That total included a soldier from the 18th Military Police Brigade killed in a roadside bombing 75 miles north of the capital Tuesday, the military said.
Four soldiers attached to the Marines died Monday in two roadside bombings near the insurgent stronghold of Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad. They were attached to the 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force.
Three soldiers died Friday but their deaths weren't announced until Tuesday: Sgt. Matthew L. Deckard, 29, of Elizabethtown, Ky., killed when a bomb went off near his tank during patrol operations; and Army Spc. David H. Ford IV, 20, Ironton, Ohio, and Army 1st Sgt. Alan N. Gifford, 39, Tallahassee, Fla. killed when an explosive detonated near their tank in Baghdad.
Before the eight military deaths were announced, a Pentagon count said 1,479 U.S. service members had died in hostile action in Iraq since the start of the war in March 2003. The toll includes five military civilians and excludes American service members who died from other causes.
Names of the victims were not released in Baghdad, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a statement issued in New York, identified the Diplomatic Security officer as Stephen Eric Sullivan. His age and address were not given.
"Steve's death is a tragic loss for all of us at the Department of State. Our thoughts and prayers are with Steve's family. We grieve with them in their loss and stand with them at this difficult time," the Rice statement said.
A new poll showed dwindling support among Americans for President Bush's handling of Iraq. Two-thirds in an AP-Ipsos survey said the United States was spending too much in Iraq, and just as many felt the money was not being spent wisely. The poll had a 3 percentage point margin of error.
While about 135,000 U.S. troops operate throughout Iraq, the 8,500 British forces are headquartered in the Basra region, in the country's far south.
A day after British armored vehicles stormed the jail in Basra to free two commandos, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a Shiite who serves as Iraq's national security adviser, said the operation was "a violation of Iraqi sovereignty."
British forces used armor to bash their way into the jail compound late Monday after a day of turmoil that erupted with the arrest of the two commandos. At first Basra police said the men shot and killed a policeman, but on Tuesday the al-Jaafari spokesman, Haydar al-Abadi, said the men -- who were wearing civilian clothes -- were grabbed for behaving suspiciously and collecting information.
The British said the men had been handed over to a militia. The Basra governor confirmed the claim, saying the Britons were in the custody of the al-Mahdi Army, the militia controlled by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
"The two British were being kept in a house controlled by militiamen when the rescue operation took place," said the governor, Mohammed al-Waili.
"Police who are members of the militia group took them to a nearby house after jail authorities learned the facility was about to be stormed," he said, demanding that the Britons be handed over to local authorities for trial. He would not say what charges they might face.
Officials in Basra, refusing to be named because they feared for their lives, said at least 60 percent of the police force there is made up of Shiite militiamen from one of three groups: the Mahdi Army; the Badr Brigade, the armed wing of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution; and Hezbollah in Iraq, a small group based in the marshlands in the south.
All militia have deep historical, religious and political ties to Iran, where many Shiite political and religious figures took refuge during the rule of Saddam Hussein.
The deepening chaos in the south, where the Shiite population had largely welcomed the U.S.-led invasion that freed them from the Saddam's oppressive rule, appears partly a function of local intrigues as the militias and their political backers vie for power.