Wednesday, September 21, 2005


BASRA, Iraq — British troops in Basra looked more isolated than ever yesterday as the province’s governor, once a crucial ally, withdrew all cooperation with unanimous support from the entire provincial assembly.

About 500 Iraqi police officers and civilians chanting “No, no to occupation” marched through the southern city’s streets as Gov. Mohammed al-Waeli condemned Britain for a jail raid Monday that freed two captured British soldiers.

Mr. al-Waeli called the raid a “barbaric act of aggression,” after an emergency meeting of the Basra provincial council late yesterday afternoon.

The withdrawal of cooperation was a unanimous decision made at an emergency meeting of the Basra provincial council late in the afternoon.

Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafaari flew to London yesterday for a meeting with British Defense Minister John Reid, who said his forces were “absolutely right” to act.

Mr. al-Jafaari said after the talks: “As for us, it will not affect the relationship between Iraq and Britain, and we hope that together we will reach … the truth of the matter.”

Clashes between British forces and Iraqi police on Monday have killed five civilians, including two who died of their injuries yesterday in a hospital, the Associated Press reported.

British forces used armored vehicles to storm a Basra jail and free their two soldiers who had been arrested by police. During the raid, British forces learned that Shi’ite Muslim militiamen and police had moved the men to a nearby house. The British then stormed that house and rescued them, according to an account by the AP.

A source in Basra’s provincial government told the Telegraph that the governor had little choice but to take a vehement anti-British stance after recent political maneuvers had left Mr. al-Waeli beholden to the Mahdi Army militia of radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The British army says it staged the raid to free the two men after police handed them over to Mahdi militiamen instead of obeying orders from Baghdad to free them.

However, the soldiers were probably never were in official police custody, say police and government sources, who also say that between 70 percent and 90 percent of Basra’s police force has been infiltrated by the private armies of religious and political factions. The two men were held in a building belonging to the shadowy internal-affairs department.

Until the spring, internal affairs was controlled by the Badr Brigade, a militia with ties to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the main Shi’ite party in Iraq’s ruling coalition.

But a senior official in Basra’s police force said the agency effectively had been taken over by the Mahdi army, the most radical Shi’ite armed group in Iraq.

“They came in with a lot of money and bought the loyalty of internal affairs,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “A lot of officers in other departments saw which way the wind was blowing and joined them. I don’t know where the money came from, although Iran is mentioned. But the truth is, the main authority in Basra now is the Mahdi army.”

Twice last year, Sheik al-Sadr’s supporters rose up in bloody rebellions against American forces in southern Iraq. Although the sheik later appeared to accept the political process, he since has announced his opposition to Iraq’s new constitution.

Tellingly, when Abu Musab Zarqawi, the chief of al Qaeda in Iraq, declared holy war on the country’s Shi’ite community this month, he pointedly excluded the Mahdi army.

Sunni insurgent groups rose up at the same time as the Mahdi army last year, and there were suspicions that they sometimes fought together.

Basra is not a stronghold of Sheik al-Sadr’s, although he does enjoy growing support in the city’s poorest suburbs. His party won only six seats in Basra’s 41-man provincial government. But a representative in the provincial government said SCIRI, which has 20 seats, was cooperating with Sheik al-Sadr.

More than 1,300 killings have been documented officially in Basra this year, and many were carried out by men in police uniform.

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