The Sunday Times: THE radical Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr has authorised his militia to kidnap two Britons in Iraq in the hope of swapping them for two of his senior officials who are held in Basra by British forces. The Sunday Times
Cleric tries to buy back his men
Hala Jaber, Baghdad
THE radical Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr has authorised his militia to kidnap two Britons in Iraq in the hope of swapping them for two of his senior officials who are held in Basra by British forces.
A senior official from al-Sadrs Mahdi army in Baghdad said that al-Sadr had given the order after last months dramatic rescue of two SAS men whom he had been hoping to use as bargaining chips.
The source said al-Sadr had given British authorities until yesterday to release his men, but they had failed to do so.
In return for our two officials, two Britons will be taken, the source said. The two need not necessarily be from the British military, but could be civilians, he added.
The source claimed that the Mahdi army had already pinpointed two British targets working for private security companies in the affluent Mansour district of Baghdad. Several British security firms have bases in the area.
Last year two British nationals Kenneth Bigley and Margaret Hassan were kidnapped and executed by Sunni extremists.
The detained men Sheikh Ahmed Majid Farttusi and Sayyid Sajjad have been accused by coalition forces of involvement in attacks that killed at least nine soldiers, including two Britons, in the past two months.
Their arrests provoked protests by dozens of Mahdi army members with assault rifles who marched to the provincial governors office. When the two SAS men were arrested shortly afterwards by Basras security forces for suspicious behaviour and allegedly shooting a policeman in the leg, they were handed to al-Sadrs militia with the apparent intention that they would be bartered for the detained militiamen.
However, British forces liberated the men that evening by storming a police station and a house to which the SAS men had been taken.
Basra, in the oil-rich south of Iraq, was long regarded as a model of successful co-operation between British forces and Iraqi officials. But the recent unrest and the new threat of kidnapping have emphasised once again an alarming potential for sudden violence.
Critics claimed that while the British Armys strategy of fostering good relations with local people and avoiding confrontation if possible has helped to make the Shiite-dominated south quieter than Iraqs Sunni heartland, militias such as al-Sadrs Mahdi army have been able to regroup and flourish and exert more control over Basras streets.
With most foreign companies staying out of the south, services have not improved for many Iraqis there, fuelling bitterness towards America and Britain. Both the Mahdi army and the pro-Iranian Badr brigade, which are vying for control of the south, have infiltrated the police forces.
The Badr brigade is the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, whose leaders have called on Shiites to vote for the countrys new constitution in the referendum set for October 15. The rivalry between the two Shiite groups could lead to al-Sadrs followers joining the Sunni majority in voting to reject the constitution.
The flourishing of Islamic radicalism in the south and signs of growing links with Iran have compounded the problems faced by the American-led coalition in Iraq. Coalition forces will have to contend with both Sunni and Shiite fundamentalists who, although bitterly opposed to each other, are united in their antipathy towards the West.
In an effort to counter the Sunni threat, about 1,000 American soldiers launched an offensive in western Iraq near the Syrian border yesterday aimed at insurgents from Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the countrys most feared terrorist group.
The army said the offensive, codenamed Operation Iron Fist, was also intended to prevent foreign fighters from entering the country from Syria and at improving security in the run-up to the referendum on the constitution.
The assault was the latest in a series of operations this year by US forces in the heartland of the Sunni insurgency. It targeted the village of Sadah, which the military said had come under militant control. A doctor in the nearby town of Qaim said 10 people had been killed and eight wounded.
But even as American troops were fighting insurgents in the west, the Iraqi governments own tenuous grip in the capital was vividly illustrated by the latest high-profile kidnapping. Jabbar Solagh, the brother of the interior minister Bayan Jabor, was abducted yesterday by four gunmen in Sadr City, a Shiite district in Baghdad.
Political power was also ebbing away as Kurdish parties in the government threatened to pull out. Kurdish leaders accuse their Shiite coalition partners of monopolising power and reneging on promises, notably to start resettling Kurds in the northern city of Kirkuk.
Colonel Tim Collins, who commanded the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment during the invasion of Iraq two years ago, last night criticised the British government for not having any plan or clear military objectives in Iraq. He said troops on the ground were deeply confused and the army was directionless.
We could be overwhelmed, he said in an interview on Channel 4. The army could be chased over the border into Iran. It could be like a council estate where the police are too afraid to enter.
Additional reporting: Ali Rifat