IRAQ was today claiming it had suffered "many casualties" after two missiles allegedly hit a busy market place in Baghdad.

Officials from the Iraqi information ministry were reporting that the market was hit during a Coalition air raid today in the north of the city.

Local reports suggested that at least 15 civilians were killed after the missile missed its target and smashed into the market.

It was also claimed that there was chaos in the streets with people injured by shrapnel and concrete from the blast.

Reporters also said they had seen 15 fatalities, after it was believed the missiles struck an apartment block and the market in a poor residential area of northern Baghdad.

Meanwhile, confusion reigned in Basra over whether there had been an uprising in Iraq's second city.

Britain's Desert Rats were said today to be poised to begin advancing into Iraq's second city of Basra in a bid to exploit an apparent uprising against Saddam Hussein.

UK forces looked set to take Basra by force, in a major change from the original policy for dealing with built-up areas.

Major General Robin Brims, commander of UK forces around the city, was said to be making plans to move tanks from the 7th Armoured Brigade - known as the Desert Rats - into the centre of Basra.

The famous unit was reported to have bombarded Iraqi forces fleeing the city, and yesterday UK forces shelled suspected Iraqi positions inside Basra.

British commanders said this was a response to Iraqi soldiers firing mortars and other weapons at local people who were taking part in some kind of rising against the regime.

The situation inside Basra was unclear this morning, but Major General Peter Wall, British Chief of Staff in Qatar, said British forces were "keen to exploit" the potential of the situation.

But the Arab TV station Al-Jazeera was reporting that it was calm on the streets of Basra with no evidence of any up-rising.

Two more British soldiers were killed when their tank was fired on by another British tank during fighting near Basra. The men, from the Queen's Royal Lancers, were named as Corporal Stephen Allbut from Stoke-on-Trent and Trooper David Clarke from Staffordshire.

The number of British dead now stands at 20, with 18 of those killed in accidents or by friendly fire.

The main Iraqi television station in Baghdad began broadcasting again about three hours being bombed by US air forces. There were reports of more bombing of Baghdad at about 8am British time today.

American officials said US forces had advanced to the outskirts of Baghdad on three fronts. But sandstorms had slowed down the advance in some areas.

It was reported that American forces had been halted by fierce resistance about 25 miles north of the city of Nasiriyah.

It was also claimed that US forces may have killed between 200 and 300 Iraqi troops in a major battle near the central city of Najaf.

Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George Bush were meeting at Camp David today, when the reconstruction of a post-war Iraq was expected to be high on the agenda.

The first ship carrying aid from the UK was expected to arrive at the port of Umm Qasr today, but aid agencies were concerned about the prospect of trying to reach besieged Basra because of the uncertain situation there.