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The dirty war in Iraq

October 7, 2005 | Page 5

ELIZABETH SCHULTE explains how the operations of Washington's junior partner in southern Iraq have exposed the U.S.-British occupation of Iraq for what it is--a dirty war waged with utmost brutality to crush all opposition.

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WHEN THE occupation of Iraq began two-and-a-half years ago, scenes of British troops playing soccer with Iraqi children in the streets of Basra were top news in the media. The soldiers were winning the "hearts and minds" of the Iraqi people, we were told.

Today, those scenes have been replaced--by the image of a British soldier fleeing his tank, as it is set ablaze amid hundreds of furious Iraqi protesters in Basra in September.

British military rule over the largely Shiite South of Iraq has long been considered the "kindler, gentler" occupation compared to U.S. rule further north--especially in Sunni-dominated areas in and around Baghdad, where attacks on occupation forces are more common. But this is changing. Attacks on Britain's 8,500 occupation troops in the South are on the rise.

Tensions came to a head September 19 when British forces used tanks to tear down the wall of a Basra prison in an operation to release two British undercover soldiers.

Initial reports that day from Britain's Ministry of Defense refused to admit that an attack had even taken place. "We've heard nothing to suggest we stormed the prison," read an official statement that night. "We understand there were negotiations." But the real story was quite different.

Earlier in the day, Iraqi police at a checkpoint had stopped two British men who were disguised in Arab dress and had a cache of arms--reportedly including explosives and a remote-control detonator--and surveillance equipment in their car. Britain's Guardian newspaper reported that Muhammad al-Abadi, a Basra government official, said, "A policeman approached them, and then one of these guys fired at him. Then the police managed to capture them."

The shootout ended with one Iraqi police officer dead and another injured. The two British men were taken into custody.

Later that day, hundreds of Basra residents came out to protest, pelting British forces with stones and setting fire to one tank, which forced one soldier to flee the burning vehicle. The angry protest was also fueled by the British army's arrest the day before of about 200 members of the Mahdi Army, headed by militant Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

The same evening that the two British men were captured, British forces moved in with as many as 10 tanks, and toppled the wall of the Jamiat police headquarters in Basra. "Four tanks invaded the area," policeman Abbas Hassan told Reuters, as he stood next to cars that had been crushed by British military vehicles. "A tank cannon struck a room where a policeman was praying. This is terrorism. All we had was rifles."

Aquil Jabbar, an Iraqi television cameraman who lives across the street from the jail, told the Guardian that dozens of Iraqi prisoners also escaped in the melee. Five Iraqis were killed and 44 injured in the violence, according to a local Iraqi official.

Mohammed al-Waili, the governor of Basra province, condemned the raid as "barbaric, savage and irresponsible." Yet British Defense Secretary John Reid said his soldiers were "absolutely right" to go on the offensive.

For his part, Iraq's Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari tried to smooth over the tensions caused by the British assault, calling it a "regrettable incident" that needed further investigation. But, he added, "These things are expected to happen, and they will not affect the relationship between Iraq and Britain."

Despite this, Basra authorities suspended cooperation with British forces and are calling for the two men to be handed back to local authorities for trial--and for British authorities to apologize. "If they had asked, we would have given the two soldiers over," said Lewa' al-Batat, the deputy governor of Basra. "Generally, we have not had trouble with the British. But they broke the laws and insulted our institutions. We will cut relations with them until they apologize and offer compensation for the relatives of [those] who died, as well as for the rebuilding of the police station."

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IN THE aftermath of the siege, the Western media echoed the British government's claim that extreme measures were necessary because Iraqi police--which they say is heavily infiltrated by militia members--had handed over the two British soldiers to a local militia, a claim that denied by a local police official.

But precious little was said about the obvious question: Why were two British soldiers, armed to the teeth, impersonating members of the Shiite Mahdi Army?

Basra Judge Raghib Mohammed Hassan told the Guardian that he had issued arrest warrants "after two foreign men were caught by Iraqi police in possession of weapons and without ID." Hassan showed the Guardian a plastic card that was the only document the men were carrying. "In an emergency, please call U.S. and UK forces on these numbers," the card read in English. Phone numbers for the cities of Amara, Nassiriya and Basra followed.

According to several news reports, the two men were under the jurisdiction of the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), set up by the British government last year to help "combat international terrorism." After the suicide bombings on London underground trains in July, the SRR was charged with hunting down those responsible. SRR officers shot dead an innocent Brazilian man on a London train on July 22.

After the Basra siege, Abdel al-Daraji, Moqtada al-Sadr's spokesman and a Muslim cleric, told Britain's Daily Telegraph that Britain was plotting to start a religious war by carrying out bombings targeting Shia civilians, and then blaming the attacks on Sunni groups. "Everyone knows the occupier's agenda...and their intention is to keep Iraq an unstable battlefield so they can exploit their interests in Iraq," he said.

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IT'S HARDLY outlandish to be suspicious of these British special operations in Basra. This is what "counterinsurgency" means in Iraq--maintaining the occupation at any cost, even a dirty war.

And the British aren't the only ones who are doing it. An expose by Peter Maass in the May 1 New York Times Magazine profiled James Steele, one of Washington's top counterinsurgency advisers in Iraq.

Steele's past experience includes leading a Special Forces mission in El Salvador during the country's civil war in the 1980s--in which 70,000 people, most of them civilians, were killed, largely by the army and right-wing death squads supported by the U.S. Today, Steele advises a 5,000-troop force in Iraq called the "Special Police Commandos."

The U.S. and Britain have a long history of behind-the-scenes dirty tricks and terror tactics that give new meaning to the warning that "foreign fighters" are infiltrating Iraq. The siege in Basra has exposed all remnants of the lie that the Iraq people have any sovereignty as long as they live under foreign occupation.

As Middle East writer Linda Heard wrote on the CounterPunch Web site, "Put simply, the double standards we impose are nauseating. What if Iraqis had stormed Abu Ghraib to free the prisoners there from sexual abuse, torture, beatings and assaults on their religious beliefs? If they had succeeded bashing down the wall of that jail and plucking their friends from their cells, would that cavalry have been termed 'rescuers' or 'terrorists'? We already know the answer to that one, don't we?"

With Iraq's October 15 constitutional referendum vote just weeks away, the myth of a democratic, free Iraq gets harder for Iraqis--and the rest of the world--to swallow.

Even those who opposed the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq for fear of the instability it would cause are beginning to change their minds. "I conclude that the presence of the U.S. ground troops is making things worse, not better," wrote Iraq expert Juan Cole, explaining late last month why he was adopting a position in favor of immediate withdrawal.

"Let's get them out now, before they destroy any more cities, create any more hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons, provoke any more ethnic hatreds by installing Shiite police in Falluja or Kurdish troops in Turkmen Tal Afar. They are sowing a vast whirlwind, a desert sandstorm of Martian proportions, which future generations of Americans and Iraqis will reap."

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