The soldiers were undercover officers dressed as Iraqis. Iraqi police officers claimed they arrested them after the men fired at a traffic police officer.
Al-Basrah government official Muhammad al-Abadi spoke to reporters yesterday immediately after the soldiers’ arrest.
"After questioning them we discovered that they were from the British Army in Al-Basrah and they were on a mission. They refused to say what their mission was. Their commander did not tell us either what their mission was; he said he couldn't speak about their mission, but I will investigate it," al-Abadi said.
From there, the situation quickly grew more confused. As British officials demanded the soldiers’ release, city police cars circulated through town using loudspeakers to call crowds out to the street to demand that the soldiers remain in jail.
The drama ended late yesterday when British forces used armored vehicles to forcibly free their colleagues. Many details about the chaotic recovery mission remain unclear. Three British soldiers were injured as mobs burned one of the vehicles and gunfire broke out.
British Army Brigadier John Lorimer said in a statement to the media in London today that the British Army acted forcibly because it had information the soldiers had been handed over to a local militia and their lives were in danger.
The soldiers ultimately were freed not from the police station, but from a nearby house to which they had been transferred. It was unclear if the men were in the police building at the time of the recovery operation.
Analysts say the clash in Al-Basrah highlights Britain’s growing problems with maintaining order in a city that is almost entirely dominated by Shi’ite militias.
The arrest of the two British soldiers comes a day after British forces in Al-Basrah arrested two leading members of the Imam Al-Mahdi Army loyal to radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
British officials told "The New York Times" privately that the crowd that converged on the police station where the British soldiers were held yesterday included militiamen apparently hoping to seize the soldiers as bargaining chips for the release of the Al-Mahdi Army members.
Mustafa Alani, a regional expert at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, told RFE/RL that the clash is part of a power struggle between the British and the militias.
“Al-Basrah has been dominated for the last two years by the Shi’a militias. And here we are talking about two major groups, we are talking about the Al-Mahdi Army and we are talking about the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq’s [SCIRI] Badr forces," Alani said. "We assume the British are in control of Al-Basrah; in reality, they lost control a long time ago. And every development in the city, whether it is the question of administration or other issues like the economy, is dominated by the militias.”
The Al-Basrah police force is widely believed to be infiltrated by members of one or the other of the two dominant militias. Britain's "The Guardian" newspaper reported today that in Al-Basrah "the Iraqi police force is largely out of control of the British and Iraqi authorities."
At the same time, many top civil authorities in Al-Basrah are reportedly people tied to the militias or their affiliated political parties and elected by loyalists who have been mobilized to vote.
The two militias vie with each other for power in tit-for-tat assassinations and drive-by shootings that have become a regular feature of life in Al-Basrah.
They also target secular and liberal opponents as they seek to impose their version of Islamic rule, including banning alcohol sales and enforcing dress codes for women.
Alani said there are multiple power struggles visible in Al-Basrah.
“There are three levels of struggle now in Al-Basrah. One is a Shi’a-Shi’a struggle between the two major militias over who is going to control the city. There is an ethnic cleansing of the Arab Sunnis and Christian communities from Al-Basrah by these militias. And the third dimension is the clash between the Al-Mahdi Army group and the British forces, because British forces try to impose a certain degree of control and security and [to do so] they have to confront this militia group,” Alani said.
The Al-Mahdi Army has twice launched rebellions against the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq and remains a volatile force even as some of its top leaders participate in the government in Baghdad. SCIRI is a major player in Iraq’s interim government. Analysts say the Shia’a-dominated government in Baghdad tolerates the situation in Al-Basrah because of the strong role of the Shi'a religious parties there.
Complicating the situation in Al-Basrah still further is the role of Iran, which has strong ties to SCIRI’s Badr forces and seeks to build its regional influence through them. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards equipped the Badr Brigades as a guerrilla force fighting against Saddam Hussein from bases in Iran until the U.S. toppled the Iraqi leader in 2003.
This week’s clash may show that tensions between the British and the militias in Al-Basrah are now reaching a breaking point.
The British have fewer than 9,000 soldiers in densely populated southern Iraq -- not enough to clamp down on the militias by force. Now, London must decide whether to continue trying to deal with them through diplomatic means, or by increasing its forces.
Similarly, the militias will have to decide whether now is the time to try to wrest full control of the city from the British or to continue with the present uneasy situation.
Alani predicts a continuing escalation of confrontations in the months ahead.
“The British will not have the capacity to impose direct control. For the last year or two they tried to use diplomacy to live with these militias, to live with the Iranian intelligence [presence in Al-Basrah]. But apparently we reach a point now where these groups will put pressure on the British and possibly will try to force them to leave Al-Basrah and the surrounding area. So we are going to see more escalation in the situation,” Alani says.
Al-Basrah is Iraq’s second-largest city, with a population of 1.5 million.
RFE/RL Special: The New Iraq