News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraqFocus: Playing with fire

Focus: Playing with fire

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The Sunday Times: British troops are famed for winning hearts and minds but last week Basra erupted. Ali Rifat, Michael
Smith and Richard Woods on an SAS mission that went horribly wrong. The Sunday Times

British troops are famed for winning hearts and minds but last week Basra erupted. Ali Rifat, Michael Smith and Richard Woods on an SAS mission that went horribly wrong

Inside Jumhuri general hospital in Basra the stench hits you first, a mix of ancient antiseptic and filth. Then comes the dilapidation: bare furniture, beds propped on concrete blocks, broken equipment.

Among the bloodied and bandaged patients last week was Mustafa Hassan Diwan, a 14-year-old boy hurt in the chaos when two undercover SAS men were seized by Iraqi police — an incident that has revealed the fragility of the British mission in southern Iraq.

“I joined the demonstrators around the (police) station and the British opened fire,” Diwan said. “I was shot.”

He was having difficulty talking because a bullet had hit him close to his ear, smashed his upper jaw, destroyed one eye and exited near his mouth. But his feelings were unmistakeable and his relatives furious.

“What crime has he committed in order for him to have to live without a right eye and with these disfigurements,” said his uncle. “Is it because he is an Iraqi and the British are more powerful that such crimes are okay?”

To him the British were no longer liberators.

Not far away lay another young victim, 13-year-old Raed Kareem, who was also in the vicinity when Iraqi demonstrators clashed with British troops trying to rescue the SAS men.

A bullet, which he blames on the British, hit him in the stomach, ripping through his liver and bowel.

“I was never politically motivated nor belonged to any of the militias or parties,” said Kareem. “But now I pray to Allah to cure me in order for me to take revenge on those detesters of everything Arab and Muslim.”

Money or compensation from the British are not what he wants. “I just want them to leave my country,” he said.

After a week in which Iraqis fire-bombed a Warrior armoured vehicle and British soldiers fled in flames, the mood in Basra remains volatile on all sides.

Many Iraqis are incensed that two SAS troopers, disguised in civilian clothes, shot an Iraqi policeman and, allegedly, a civilian when challenged at a checkpoint. Another nine people died in the ensuing riot, according to the Iraqi judge handling the case, and 14 were injured.

Among British forces morale is suffering in the face of increasing hostility in Iraq and diminishing public support for the war at home. With the referendum on the proposed Iraqi constitution due next month and elections for the first proper government in December, the British find themselves caught between insurgents bent on mayhem and local militias desperate to grab power. Telling friend from foe is far from easy.

Hovering behind it all is the brooding presence of neighbouring Iran, a country of Shi’ite Muslims with links to the Shi’ites who predominate in southern Iraq. Spies, fighters, weapons and money flow across the porous Iran-Iraq border, fuelling the instability.

British officials say Iranian Revolutionary Guards and intelligence officers are active inside Basra, surreptitiously funding both the Badr brigades, blamed for the recent killings of Sunni Muslims in Iraq, and the “Mahdi” army of the firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Yesterday a former defence minister in the interim Iraqi government claimed Iran’s influence extends even deeper into Iraq. Hazim Shalan, who left the administration in May, claimed that parts of the Iraqi government are now being directed by Iran.

More than 460 Iranian agents had been apprehended in Iraq, he said, adding that many had been released after a visit by the Iranian foreign minister to Baghdad.

Yesterday Shalan — a controversial figure alleged to have been involved in fraud while in government (which he denies) — said: “There are thousands of Iranian officials operating in the south. Elections are being swung by Iranians paying off and intimidating voters. They use Iranian money in Basra now to create trouble. They want Iraq to be a religious state and to ensure long-term political control.”

If the Iranian influence is true, it poses serious problems. Is an independent “Shiastan” in the making in southern Iraq? Will it fuel the likelihood of civil war or the break-up of Iraq?

And what does it portend for the British troops hoping for a way out of the mess as the country gropes through the bloodshed and bombings towards a future?

FOR nearly two months the British in Basra have secretly been fighting the threat from Iran.

“Since the increase in attacks against UK forces two months ago a 24-strong team of SAS soldiers has been working out of Basra to provide a safety net to stop the bombers getting into the city from Iran,” said a source with inside knowledge of the operation last week.

“The aim is to identify routes used by insurgents and either capture or kill them.”

As part of that mission two SAS troopers, dressed in Arab clothes, were driving through Basra in a white Nissan on “close recce patrol” last Monday morning.

“They had been directed to link up and join a second patrol, supplying them with more ‘tools’ and firepower,” said the source. The car was loaded with M4 carbines, a Minimi machinegun, dozens of magazines of ammunition and satellite communications systems.

But the local Iraqis, according to Qutaeb Rasheed Abdul Hameed, a member of the Iraqi police, had no idea who the men in the white Nissan were. So Hameed took a few of his officers to investigate.

“When we got out to check the car, the driver saw us approaching and began firing,” Hameed claimed in an interview with The Sunday Times. “I and my men rushed back to hide behind our car and I felt a flashing burn in my leg and realised I had been hit.”

If this is a true account, why might the SAS have reacted by opening fire without warning? According to one former officer with experience of Iraq, troopers believe the Iraqi police are never to be trusted because their ranks are plagued by militia members and insurgents.

“It is commonly accepted that if you are captured by the Iraqi police there is every chance you will be handed over to the militia — which is akin to a death sentence,” he said. “So the rule of thumb is to avoid being captured at all costs.”

Even the Iraqi chief of police has admitted he cannot trust all of his men.

Special forces commanders also believe that the SAS men had particular reason on this occasion to feel their lives were in danger: they suspected a local worker at their base had tipped off the militia about the patrol.

In the previous week British forces had captured some members of the Mahdi army — and it may have wanted British captives to use as bargaining chips.

Either way, as the Nissan roared off, Hameed called for other units to pursue it. A chase ensued and, according another Iraqi police officer, Khaled Abdul Baqi, one of the occupants of the Nissan continued to fire out of the window. Baqi claims one of the shots killed a passer-by.

As the cars raced along the dusty streets another Iraqi police vehicle converged on the Nissan, forcing it to a halt.

“We asked them to come out of their vehicle,” said Baqi, who said the Iraqis still had no idea who the occupants were. “They refused and kept on repeating ‘no police’, ‘go back’, and ‘we are police’.”

By now about 50 Iraqi police had surrounded the Nissan and the SAS men had no way out. They were dragged from their car, said Baqi, beaten, punched, cuffed and thrown into the back of a pick-up truck.

“Inside the car we found Racal surveillance equipment, two bags with some equipment that resembled a large remote control of sorts and which had screens on them to pinpoint co-ordinates, and machineguns,” said Baqi.

The men were driven to the headquarters of the Internal Affairs Directorate where it was decided to move them on to the Iraqi governor’s headquarters.

But the SAS only undertake such risky “close recce” patrols on the understanding that if they run into difficulty every effort will be made to extract them. A rescue mission was already under way. Before the men could be moved, British forces arrived at the police headquarters demanding their release.

A judge, Ragheb Mohamad Hassan al-Muthafar, arrived and presided over a stand-off. He was shown the captured weapons, told that the arrested men had no identification and informed that Hameed had been shot.

On the other hand, a six-man team of British officers, led by “Major James”, was in the police station trying to negotiate the release of the SAS men. The judge refused.

“I said I couldn’t release them as I had issued an arrest warrant against them and needed to carry out an investigation,” he said, “and that I needed a letter from the British commander about their identities.”

As the arguments dragged on through the afternoon a crowd, including Sadr supporters, gathered outside the station, where British troops and armoured vehicles were standing by. According to Baqi, a Sadr representative arrived and demanded that the British captives not be released as the militia might want to exchange them for their own officials held by the British.

The judge refused to get involved but it didn’t take long for tempers to flare in the crowd outside. Stones were thrown. Shots fired. Suddenly petrol bombs were landing on one of the Warrior armoured vehicles.

“The top cover and hatches were open (because the driver’s optical sights had been smashed), and one of the petrol bombs came in over me and my gunner,” said Sergeant George Long. “I had to get out because I was in flames. So we got out over the back and luckily someone put me out.”

Another soldier, Second Lieutenant John Cliffe, described his Warrior being “hammered by petrol bombs and burning tyres”.

“There was burning fuel seeping through my turret onto my gunner and me,” he said. “The vehicle was stalled and the radio jammed.” He clambered out onto the vehicle and, kicking at the crowd below, leapt off and escaped.

In the melee and shooting, people were dying. The father of a 17-year-old who was hit told The Sunday Times: “My son could not bear the sight of demonstrators being shot by the British armoured car. So he ran towards it and climbed over it and opened the hatch and threw a Molotov bomb to stop the soldiers from firing randomly.

“When he saw it burning he began dancing on the top with joy, but seconds later the soldier came out. My son grabbed him and tried to pull the soldier to take him to the group of people he had been shooting at, but fate had it otherwise.

“A bullet from another soldier penetrated my son from the back and came out of his abdomen, killing him and giving him the honour of martyrdom. My son is not dead — he is a martyr in heaven who has brought pride to our tribe.”

As violence filled the streets members of the Mahdi army arrived at the police station and demanded that the police hand over the captured SAS men to them. Brigadier John Lorimer, commander of the British brigade in Basra, faced a life and death decision.

Lorimer knew from aerial surveillance that suspected Mahdi figures had entered the police station; that the crowd might riot again; that the six-man negotiating team was at risk as well as the SAS men.

He ordered the British forces to go in hard. A Warrior smashed through the compound wall and and a rescue team of SAS bolstered by infantry burst into the police station, seizing weapons and overpowering the Iraqis.

The Mahdi army, however, had already bundled the SAS men into the boots of two cars and smuggled them out to a nearby house. They swiftly moved on to another house — partly because some Mahdi started firing guns in the air in celebration at having two SAS men at their mercy — and finally to a house in the al- Hayaniya district.

The British, though, were close behind and the Mahdi fled when they saw they were about to be surrounded. When the rescuers blew the door of the house, the two SAS men were found inside alone.

Though the men have been rescued, the incident still festers. The judge has issued an arrest warrant for the two SAS men, though the British say it has no legal force and the men may no longer be in Iraq. The Iraqis are also seeking compensation for the people killed and property destroyed.

More worryingly, Basra city council has voted to suspend co-operation with the British, though many see that as posturing ahead of the nationwide elections in December. Such apparent rejection by the people they are supposed to be helping towards democracy is hardly good for the morale of British soldiers.

The pressures of repeated tours of duty and the legal restraints imposed on soldiers who face daily threats to their lives are also taking their toll.

One soldier, who served with a frontline infantry regiment and asked not be named, was blunt: “Morale is through the floor; many lads in Iraq just count the days until they are back in the UK and then they leave.”

FOR the overall British presence in Iraq, though, no easy end is in sight and no date set for withdrawal. “Who can tell?” retorted one senior officer when asked last week how long British troops might have to stay.

Tony Blair hopes the elections will lead to better security, allowing the Iraqis to take over from British forces. To some outside observers, however, Iraq is heading towards disintegration, not stability.

In an unusually frank warning last week Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, said: “There is no dynamic now pulling the nation together. All the dynamics are pulling the country apart.”

Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as protector of Sunni Muslim interests, is concerned at the prospect of Shi’ite Iran extending its influence into oil-rich southern Iraq.

Gareth Stansfield, an expert in Middle East politics at the Royal Institute of International Affairs and Exeter University, believes the Iranians are already the real winners from the Iraq war.

“Iraq has been delivered to Iran on a plate by the coalition,” he said. “It sits there as a powerful neighbour, with very complex and strong links in the south . . . and politically with the Kurds in the north.

“I would go so far as to say that the pre-eminent foreign force in Iraq is not the US, it is Iran. It has succeeded in its geopolitical aim — Iraq will never threaten them again — and it has tied up the US in a swamp of insurgencies.”

The same message will be pushed hard by Shalan, the former Iraqi defence minister, when he tours British and American television studios this week.

Meanwhile, Iran is pressing ahead with its nuclear ambitions. The European Union and America are accusing Iran of attempting to develop nuclear weapons; Iran claims it wants to develop a domestic nuclear energy industry. Negotiations on a solution are deadlocked.

Last week President George W Bush expressed optimism that progress is being made in Iraq, with the schedule for the elections for a permanent government on track. But those elections may not prevent the country effectively dividing into Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish autonomous regions.

That, warned Saud, could bring other countries, such as Iran and Turkey, into the conflict. “This is a very dangerous situation,” he said. “A very threatening situation.”

THE BUILD-UP TO THE CRISIS

On Monday two SAS men in Arab clothes and an unmarked car clashed with local Iraqi police in Basra sparking a riot and political crisis. This is how they came to be there

• In July three British soldiers were killed when a bomb struck their patrol vehicle at Amarah close to the Iranian border

• Forensic examination of the device revealed it was a sophisticated bomb designed to penetrate the armoured Land Rover from below. Experts identified it as similar to bombs supplied by Iran to Hezbollah, the militant Islamic group

• Intelligence from MI6 and GCHQ also revealed that Iranian Revolutionary Guards were on the ground in Basra posing as pilgrims on the way to Iraq’s holy shrines and liaising with the militias

• Military commanders decided to send the SAS into Basra to track the routes along which insurgents and bombs were being smuggled in from Iran. Two dozen SAS soldiers were dispatched from “the Station House” in Baghdad to Basra

• The SAS teams conducted an overall review of the area to decide where to focus covert observation posts and close recce patrols. All SAS troopers in the field were in civilian dress, operating undercover

• Each patrol was briefed in detail. At a remote part of their base they rehearsed “actions on”, the precise responses to take in any likely circumstance, including contact with civilian police. They double-checked all equipment, including communications gear and weapons

• SAS patrols both in car and on foot then began a bid to track down and trap the suspected arms smugglers

• On Monday last week, one of these two-man teams left their base by car — a battered Nissan — disguised as locals to gather intelligence and resupply another team

• The car was stopped by a police officer who was shot in leg as the SAS team tried to avoid capture

• The two SAS men sped off but were pursued by Iraqi police. After a chase in which a passerby was killed by a stray bullet, they were captured

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