Adrian Blomfield / The Telegraph – 2005-09-28 09:28:24
BASRA (September 28, 2005) — The convoy of Warrior armoured vehicles jolted along the rutted street. Inside the furnace-like interior of the rear vehicle four sweating soldiers from the Staffordshire regiment cursed the stench of sewage that filled the air.
Their mission was simple if lowly: visit a police station and deliver a consignment of toys to a nearby hospital. Two months ago the security would have been unnecessary. Then British officers frequently drove around Basra in lone, unarmoured Land Rovers.
But a tranquil spring in southern Iraq has given way to a midsummer of violence that reached an alarming climax when a mob set British troops ablaze and a rogue police unit with suspected insurgent ties abducted two undercover soldiers.
Since then British positions in Basra, the capital of the south, have come under mortar and rocket fire on 11 separate occasions, the most sustained attacks in at least a year.
A series of sophisticated roadside attacks has killed six Americans and six Britons in Basra province since the end of July alone. And new details of last week’s violence have highlighted what many long suspected: Basra has fallen under the control of a cabal of renegade police commanders who have enforced a reign of terror in the city.
It was these commanders, with close ties to radical Shia militias, who held the two SAS soldiers in their headquarters at Basra’s Jameat police station and probably orchestrated the violence that followed.
British soldiers involved in the operation to rescue the two men say they were surrounded by up to 3,000 demonstrators. They were then attacked by a well co-ordinated core of between 500 and 1,000 who damaged 13 Warriors, setting eight ablaze with petrol bombs. Members of the crowd also fired hand-held and rocket-propelled grenades at the Warriors and unleashed a hail of gunfire at British positions.
“The vehicle was on fire for up to an hour,” said Sgt Maj Shaun Hunt, who swung his turret repeatedly to knock off the baying mob clambering over the top of his Warrior. “Our biggest fear was that they were trying to throw a hand grenade into the turret,” he said. “We used six or seven fire extinguishers but the flames were coming in.”
Four British soldiers were forced to escape from another Warrior and images of them tumbling from their burning vehicle were beamed around the world. Three have returned to duty but Pte Karl Hinnet remains in a serious burns unit in England.
With a British withdrawal from Iraq dependent on handing over to a police force capable of enforcing stability in the south, officers are keen to emphasise that relations with most of the police remain good.
An order from the city’s governing council to halt contacts with the British has been ignored by a large number of police. Two police stations visited by The Daily Telegraph and British troops were welcoming, although officers at one other seemed uncomfortable and possibly hostile.
British officers say they have successfully trained nearly 15,000 policemen in Basra province. But some non-commissioned officers, speaking privately, seemed dubious about their pupils’ skills.
“They’ve forgotten everything you taught them by the next day,” one complained. Another characterised their shooting skills as “abysmal”, although colleagues argued that this was no bad thing. “At least when they shoot at us, they’ll probably miss,” he said. British officers concede that militia infiltration of the police force and the terror they inflict on the majority of ordinary, loyal policemen represents a setback.
“The number of policemen with affiliation to militia is a problem but the other problem is the effect they have on other departments,” said Lt Col Nick Henderson, commanding officer of the Coldstream Guards in Basra. “It has an exponential effect.”
There has been a local surge of revenge killings in the region, with the bodies of prominent Sunni Arabs found on a rubbish tip.
Rumours are whispered everywhere about the malevolent influence of Iran, whose border lies just a few miles away. Iranian insurgent attacks against Iraqi targets seem unlikely. But attacks on multinational forces could possibly have Iranian connections.
A British diplomat in Basra said the recent roadside bombs were similar to those used by Hizbollah in Lebanon, “were associated with Iranian technology” and had passed over the Iranian border.
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