The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Trouble in Basra

Two British soldiers, wearing plainclothes and driving a civilian vehicle, were arrested and charged with the killing of an Iraqi policeman. The British army responded by demolishing Basra's central jail to spring them. But their first attempt apparently failed:
The two men, said to be on an undercover intelligence mission, were sprung only hours after British forces had encircled the building but were forced to flee by a violent mob hurling stones and Molotov cocktails. Two Iraqi civilians were reportedly killed in the riots, during which two UK Warrior armoured vehicles were set alight.
This appears to be a debacle of the first order. Basra's own leaders claim that their sovereignty has been undermined, while the UK's own opposition insist that it must be a deliberate government action:
Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs spokesman, said from the party conference in Blackpool: "It is hard to see how relations between the British military and the civilian Iraqi authorities in Basra will ever be the same again.
"This is bound to be seen as a humiliation by many Iraqis - something the insurgents will use to their advantage. An operation of this kind must have gone to the highest level - "I would be surprised if the Prime Minister had not been consulted."
To be fair, we have to note that the Liberal Democrats are a weak [by European standards] and reliably antiwar third party. Thus the presence of the above quote is indirect evidence that senior Tories, and in particular the shadow Foreign Minister, did not see fit to provide a tasty quote to the Times.

I don't know how bad this is going to be in the end. I did derive grim amusement from the Times's followup article this morning: Iran blamed as militias step up Basra violence.
There are strong suspicions that the bloodshed is being orchestrated with weapons and encouragement from Iran.
The clashes and the arrest of two undercover soldiers was almost certainly triggered by the arrest at the weekend of Sheikh Ahmed al-Fartusi, the leader of the Mahdi Army, a banned militia loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr. He was seized by British troops in a raid that also netted his brother and another colleague.
When the American-occupied north was restive and the British-occupied south peaceful, the press would maintain that their superior rapport with the Iraqis and less "heavy-handed" approach were responsible. [Here is an example from the AP.] The new violence, however, is atributed not to the a breakdown of this principle but to exogenous interference, in this case Iranian.