BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP)-Apparently disabled by a missile, a British military helicopter smashed into a vacant lot between two houses in the southern city of Basra, bursting into flames. Then things turned uglier.

A mob of Iraqis quickly gathered near the smoking wreckage Saturday, dancing in celebration at the reported deaths of the four crew members. Some 250 people, many of them teenagers, jubilantly pumped their fists.

When British soldiers arrived in hopes of rescuing the copter crew, the crowd unleashed a hail of stones and hurled firebombs while chanting “we are all soldiers of al-Sayed”-referring to Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric who is an ardent foe of foreign troops in Iraq.

As many as three British armored vehicles were set on fire, apparently with gasoline bombs and a rocket-propelled grenade, but the troops inside escaped unhurt, witnesses said.

Iraqi police said the British soldiers fired in the air trying to scatter the mob, but Shiite gunmen intervened and a gunbattle erupted.

By the time calm was restored, four Iraqi adults and a child were dead and some 30 civilians were injured, along with the four British helicopter crew members, police said.

Reminiscent of other outbursts of Iraqis cheering the deaths of foreigners, the chaotic scene underscored that discontent over the presence of foreign soldiers is growing among Iraq’s majority Shiites even though they have generally steered clear of the Sunni-dominated insurgency.

Iraqi police Capt. Mushtaq Khazim said the helicopter went down after it was struck by a shoulder-fired missile – a weapon widely available among insurgent groups and armed militias in Iraq.

The British Defense Ministry refused to discuss the cause of the afternoon crash. It confirmed only that there were “casualties” but did not give a figure.

A British spokeswoman, Capt. Kelly Goodall, said British soldiers who responded came “under attack by a variety of weapons, including small arms fire, petrol bombs, as well as blast bombs and stone.”

She said the soldiers fired “a small number of live rounds” in self defense. She said there was some minor injuries among the troops on the ground, but gave no details.

In London, Britain’s newly appointed defense secretary, Des Browne, said he was “deeply saddened” by the death of British soldiers, “which reminds us of the risks our servicemen and women face every day” in Iraq.

The crash came at a tough time for British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who angered many Britons, including members of his own Labour Party, with his support for the war. On Friday, Blair carried out a sweeping overhaul of his Cabinet after Labour suffered a drubbing in local elections, drawing calls for the prime minister to set a firm timetable for leaving office.

Tensions have been worsening in southern Iraq, where Britain has about 8,000 soldiers and other countries also have troops.

Three Polish soldiers were wounded by a bomb Saturday in the mostly Shiite city of Diwaniyah. On April 27, a roadside bomb killed three Italian soldiers and one Romanian near Nasiriyah, another Shiite city in the south.

Trouble in the largely Shiite region is due in part to the growing influence of al-Sadr, who led two armed uprisings against U.S.-led forces in 2004 and who has been an outspoken critic of the U.S.-led foreign military mission.

Last September, British troops battled Shiite gunmen in Basra after two British undercover soldiers were seized by police, whose ranks have been infiltrated by Shiite militiamen. British forces staged a raid that freed the men.

Tensions boiled again in February when the London newspaper News of the World published video images that appeared to show British soldiers beating Iraqi civilians during a riot in Amarah in 2004.

Shiite anger has also been stoked by a perceived shift in U.S. policy since the arrival of U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, a Sunni Muslim who has criticized the Shiite-led Interior Ministry for human rights abuses and made overtures to Sunni insurgents in hopes of getting them to lay down their arms.

In violence elsewhere, a suicide bomber wearing an Iraqi army uniform entered an Iraqi base in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit and detonated an explosives belt, killing three officers, said the Iraqi Defense Ministry’s spokesman, Maj. Gen. Abdul-Aziz Mohammed Jassim.

The attack appeared to be part of an insurgent campaign to discourage Sunni Arabs from joining the government army and police.

The U.S. command also announced that an American soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad on Friday. At least 2,417 U.S. military personnel have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003.

In other developments Saturday, according to police:

– Two Iraqi soldiers and three insurgents were killed in a firefight near Youssifiyah, 12 miles south of Baghdad.

– A car bomb killed two policemen and an Iraqi soldier about 30 miles north of Baqouba.

– One policeman was killed and eight people injured by roadside bombings in the capital. A drive-by shooting killed two brothers in the city.

– Police in Baghdad found the bodies of 18 Iraqi men who had been kidnapped and brutally killed by sectarian death squads. Meanwhile, seven Iraqis, including three paramilitary policemen, were kidnapped south of Baghdad.

– A roadside bomb in the northern city of Mosul wounded two Iraqi policemen. Police also found the bullet-ridden bodies of a father and son kidnapped earlier in the day.