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Iraq: Softly softly army tactics shattered by day of chaos
By Ian Cobain and Richard Norton-Taylor
21 September 2005
For some at Westminster, the dramatic events in Basra on Monday were
a sure sign that Iraq is sliding towards civil war. For other, more
sanguine voices, it was no worse than a busy night in Belfast.
According to Mohammad al-Waili, the governor of Basra province, the
British army mounted a `barbaric, savage and irresponsible` raid on
a police station. On the contrary, said Brigadier John Lorimer,
commander of British troops in the region, Iraqi police had flouted
the law in an `unacceptable` fashion, and two captured soldiers
needed to be rescued.
What was clear last night was that the trust between the British
army and Iraqi police - whom the British helped to train - has
largely broken down. Many of the 7,000 Iraqi police in Basra are now
said to owe allegiance not to the state, but to the mosque.
According to some estimates, at least half will take orders from
Moqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shia cleric. Earlier this year, Steven
Vincent, a journalist working for the New York Times, reported that
British authorities were reluctant to interfere in the militias`
growing influence on the police. Shortly after his report was
published, Mr Vincent was abducted by militiamen and shot dead.
On Sunday, the softly softly British approach appeared to come to an
abrupt end when troops detained three leaders of the Mahdi army, the
militia loyal to Mr Sadr. Among those held for questioning about
bomb attacks was its local leader, Sheikh Ahmad Majid al-Fartusi.
The arrests sparked demonstrations by around 200 supporters who
blocked city centre streets, brandishing rifles.
During the next 36 hours, events moved quickly. First, on Monday
afternoon, two undercover British soldiers, members of a special
forces unit, were ordered to stop at an Iraqi police roadblock on
the outskirts of the city. According to local reports, the men were
driving fast in a civilian car. Each was wearing civilian clothes
and Arabic headdress and, on being challenged, one opened fire on
the officers, killing one and wounding a second.
John Reid, the defence secretary, said yesterday that the soldiers
had been `doing their job`.`They were building up a picture and
[getting] information to protect our soldiers and their operations.`
The pair were overwhelmed and taken initially to Jamiat police
station in the city centre, where Arab journalists were allowed to
take their photographs. Meanwhile, a crowd of men and youths
gathered outside the police station, and began hurling rocks and
petrol bombs at four British Warriors outside the building.
According to Iraqi reports, three demonstrators were killed and 15
injured. Television viewers around the world saw the moment that the
gunner in one Warrior had to leap for his life as he and vehicle
became engulfed by flames. Two others, members of the Coldstream
Guards battle group, were also hurt. None of the injuries is thought
to be life threatening.
At around this time, in the south-west of the city, a second New
York Times journalist was being murdered. Fakher Haidar al-Tamimi,
38, who had also worked for the Guardian, had written an article for
the Times in which he criticised the British authorities`
laissez-faire attitude. According to neighbours, one of the vehicles
driven by the men who abducted him from his home was a police car.
On Monday afternoon the Ministry of Defence said British forces were
negotiating for the release of the two soldiers. Under Iraqi law,
the pair should have been handed over to the coalition forces. At
one point, the Iraqi interior minister, Bayan Jabr, is understood to
have demanded their release, but the police refused.
In the early hours of yesterday morning, the `negotiations` resulted
in a Warrior punching a large hole in the police station`s perimeter
wall and demolishing a couple of prefabricated buildings inside. An
MoD spokesman suggested that this `might` have been an accident. `We
would never orchestrate or authorise a jail break,` he insisted.
During the melee, several dozen prisoners are reported to have
escaped, although the MoD denies this.
Brigadier Lorimer said he had taken `the difficult decision to order
entry` into the police station after his men discovered their
captured comrades were no longer inside. The police admitted they
had handed the two men to the Mahdi army.
One Iraqi member of parliament said yesterday that the Mahdi army
had been hoping to keep the two men as hostages who could be
exchanged for their arrested leaders. A helicopter is thought to
have seen a car being driven from the police station, however, and
the two soldiers were later rescued from a nearby house.
Yesterday police complained the British had behaved like
`terrorists`. `A tank cannon struck a room where a policeman was
praying,` said one officer, Abbas Hassan. `This is terrorism. All we
had was rifles.`
Brigadier Lorimer preferred to describe it as `a difficult day`. He
added: `We have put this behind us and will move on`.
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