What really happened in Basra?

Outrage grows over an incident involving British troops and Iraqi police.

Published September 22, 2005 7:57PM (EDT)

Salon's Aaron Kinney follows up on an incident involving British soldiers and Iraqi police.

Iraqi outrage continues to grow in the southern Iraqi city of Basra over a raid by the British military to free two undercover soldiers who got into a gunfight with Iraqi policemen. On Wednesday, the Basra provincial council voted to stop cooperating with British forces until they receive an apology for the raid, while an angry armed crowd that included Basra police officers demonstrated in protest.

Many questions remain about the incident, which we described earlier this week. Why did the two British soldiers fire on the Basra traffic officers who stopped them? Why, as Reuters reported, were they carrying an antitank missile? Were the soldiers, as the British military alleges, handed over to a Shiite militia?

What's not in question is the fact that Basra is largely under the control of these Shiite militias, including the followers of firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Basra's police force is filled with men whose primary allegiance is to Shiite authorities and not to the coalition forces. And in the past two months, two journalists who reported on these phenomena have been executed.

The first to die was Steven Vincent, who published one of his dispatches on Basra in the July 31 edition of the New York Times. Vincent wrote that one Iraqi journalist told him, "No one trusts the police." He also described how "self-appointed monitors" patrolled the city's university campus unchecked, making sure that "women's attire and makeup are properly Islamic."

Most disturbing, Vincent reported that an Iraqi police lieutenant confirmed for him the rumor that a small group of police officers were "perpetrating many of the hundreds of assassinations  that take place in Basra each month." Vincent said the lieutenant told him there was "even a sort of 'death car': a white Toyota Mark II that glides through the city streets, carrying off-duty police officers in the pay of extremist religious groups to their next assignment."

Vincent later learned, according to the London Times, that the Toyota had been replaced by a "brand new white Chevrolet pick-up without registration plates but with the word 'Police' written on it." On Aug. 3, just three days after his article appeared in the New York Times, Vincent was found dead of multiple gunshot wounds to the chest after he and his translator were abducted off the street by five men in a police car. (Vincent had also generated enmity in Basra for his reported plans to marry his female Iraqi translator, who appeared in public with her head uncovered, in order for her to gain U.S. citizenship.)

The death of the other writer, Faiker Haider, coincided with the onset of the recent crisis. Haider was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head on Sept. 19, the same day the raid by British forces took place. The mission to free the undercover British marines, which reportedly allowed 150 prisoners in the facility to escape, occurred during a period of unrest following the arrest by British authorities of two close al-Sadr associates.

Haider was abducted from his home early in the morning of Sept. 19 by masked men who identified themselves as police, according to the London Times. The men pulled up to Haider's house in one police car and one unmarked car and entered his residence brandishing AK-47 assault rifles. The men ransacked the apartment, grabbing cellphones and videotapes, and took Haider with them, leaving his wife and three small children behind, the Times reported.

As the controversy in Basra unfolds, larger questions emerge. How will the new Iraqi government hold together, given the power of regional religious factions? And how will a central Iraqi government maintain security when local militias wield so much authority? At a press briefing at the Pentagon today, George W. Bush assured Americans once again that progress is being made in Iraq, but he also acknowledged that Iraqis are still a long way from being ready to take over. "It's going to be a while to turn over full control," he said. "Full control says that the Iraqis are capable of moving around the country and sharing intelligence and they got a command control system that works like ours, and that's going to be a while."

By Aaron Kinney

Aaron Kinney is a writer in San Francisco. He has a blog.

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