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Iraq: Britain Faces Predicament In Al-Basrah

  • Kathleen Ridolfo

Demonstations against the British presence in southern Iraq have mounted (epa) The Al-Basrah Governorate Council cut ties with the United Kingdom on 14 February after a 2004 videotape surfaced in the British media that appears to depict British soldiers beating Iraqi youths. This follows weeks of mounting tension between the council and the British military, and could lead to an earlier-than-expected pullout of British forces from southern Iraq.

The council said in a statement that it was cutting ties with the British because earlier demands have not been met, including the release of prisoners, the forwarding of the security file to Iraqis, and a withdrawal of British forces from the city center, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported on 15 February. Those demands were first made in January after British troops arrested five local police officers for alleged criminal activities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 January 2006).

Britain said the arrests were made at the request of the Iraqi Interior Ministry. In the raid, the troops confiscated weapon stockpiles and arrested five Iraqi police officials affiliated with the former Department of Affairs, Criminal Intelligence Unit, and Serious Crimes Unit; all were suspected of kidnapping, extortion, and the assassination of civilians in the governorate, as well as participating in attacks against multinational forces.

Al-Basrah's Slow Decline

Some 8,000 British forces have been stationed in Al-Basrah since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003. While widely hailed for their approach to interacting with the community -- British soldiers often patrolled on foot, and reportedly established good personal relations with locals -- they also appeared to distance themselves from local political developments. Consequently, gang-like associations linked to Shi'ite political groups have come to rule the streets of Al-Basrah over the past three years, locals say.

There were indications early on that democratic institutions were not taking hold in Al-Basrah. In January 2004, the existence of a secret police force operating in Al-Basrah was uncovered by the British media. The members of the Istikhbarat al-Shurta (Police Intelligence) unit were accused of kidnapping, detaining, and even killing former Ba'ath Party members. British forces were reportedly aware of the group's activities, London's "Sunday Times" claimed (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 30 January 2004).

By May 2004, relations had further strained following a series of crackdowns on radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army in cities across Iraq. A representative of al-Sadr in Al-Basrah, Abd al-Sattar al-Bahadili, promised a 250,000-dinar (about $170) reward to anyone who captured a female British soldier and delivered her to al-Sadr.

By August 2004, al-Sadr's spokesman in Al-Basrah, As'ad al-Basri claimed there were over 1,000 martyrdom candidates ready to carry out suicide attacks against British forces in the city.

Taking Toll On The Public

The growing domination of the militias has taken its toll on the public as well. Many voters outside polling stations in the city said they would vote for anyone but the Shi'ite parties in the January 2005 national election. But Shi'ite parties were victorious in the end, and they subsequently solidified their control over the city.

Part of the challenge facing the British in southern Iraq is that there are now few unaffiliated people left to deal with. Two competing Shi'ite militias roam the streets of what was once called one of Iraq's most liberal cities, enforcing their own brand of justice, and the groups have infiltrated police and intelligence departments.

The militias, linked to al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army, and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq's (SCIRI) Badr Forces, target the "un-lslamic," as well as Sunni Arabs and Christians, and those with ties to the former Ba'ath Party. The militias also target each other as part of their ongoing turf war.

Dozens of reports have surfaced in the past year documenting the lawlessness and brutality of rogue police and militias operating across southern Iraq. In March, students described the situation in Al-Basrah following a militia attack on picnicking students. "The intelligence service that arrested students is staffed by Al-Badr forces. The police stand with the [al-Sadr] militia against the students. [The police] do nothing." Asked whether the new governorate council intervened, one student said: "The governorate council also does nothing, because it is new. The governor says, 'I am new, I can't do anything.' The situation is growing worse by the day, and [the militias] are trying to impose armed terror on the people" (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 28 March 2005).

Later, Al-Basrah police chief General Hassan al-Sade admitted that he had lost control of over three-quarters of his officers to militias that infiltrated the police and used their positions to carry out political assassinations. "The militias are the real power in [Al-Basrah] and they are made up of criminals and bad people," he said. "To defeat them I would need to use 75 percent of my forces, but I can rely on only one-quarter" (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 4 November 2005).

British Inquiry Ongoing

So far, a U.K. inquiry into the video has led to the arrest of three soldiers. Meanwhile, two Iraqis who claim they were among those beaten by British soldiers in the video, taped in 2004 in the town of Al-Amarah, north of Al-Basrah, have come forward, telling reporters at al-Sadr's Al-Amarah office that they would be seeking compensation for their ordeal, British media reported this week.

But local officials are sticking to their demands. "No department of Al-Basrah city or the governorate [will] cooperate or deal with [Britain]. This series of aggressions [by British forces] aired by the satellite channels including the humiliations and attacks on unarmed demonstrators have pained us," Governorate Council member Baha al-Din Jamal al-Din was quoted by Al-Manar television on 14 February as saying.

The council has been aided by statements of support from Sunni Arab groups. The influential Muslim Scholars Association criticized British forces in a 14 February statement posted to the association's website (http://www.iraq-amsi.org). The association declared that the videotaped "incident represents a policy adopted by British forces and [was] not just a passing accident as [U.K. Prime Minister] Tony Blair claimed. What is [going on] behind the scenes is far worse. Once the truth is revealed, the world will see scandals that humanity would recoil at."

British Withdrawal An Option?

The U.K. Defense Ministry announced earlier this month that it likely to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq by mid-year. Defense Secretary John Reid said on 7 February that four conditions would need to be met before troops could depart: a manageable level of threat from insurgents; the ability of Iraqi security forces to deal with the terrorist threat; an effective local government, and coalition confidence in its own ability to provide backup for local forces.

It appears unlikely, however, that those conditions could be reasonably met anytime soon. In Al-Basrah, it would require a complete rebuilding of Iraqi police forces and the establishment of a new local government not tied to militias. Finding Iraqis willing to take on the powerful militias will be no small task.

For now, the U.K. military is burdened with the challenge of rebuilding public trust following the abuse video. Groups like al-Sadr's have not hesitated to use the videos to stir up public sentiment through daily demonstrations against coalition forces.

Iran's Arabic-language television and newspapers -- aimed at an Iraqi audience -- have sought to capitalize on the situation as well. The official news agency IRNA claimed on 15 February that the continued presence of "occupation forces" has led to the emergence of an atmosphere even worse than that which existed under Saddam Hussein.
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