The closer we look at what happened in Basra the other day, the murkier and more suspicious the picture gets. Two British undercover operatives fired at the Iraqi police, killing one and injuring another, and were taken into custody, then “rescued” as British tanks laid siege to police headquarters. The incident culminated in a pitched battle between Iraqi and British forces, and in its aftermath a war of words is heating up that threatens to expose a widening chasm between these two ostensible “allies.”
We are told that our enemy in Iraq is a shadowy network of al-Qaeda-affiliated suicide bombers who will do anything to disrupt that country’s march toward “democracy,” but instead we find coalition troops shooting at the very Iraqi police we are investing so much money, effort, and hope into.
What in blazes is going on?
The two sides do not agree on even the most basic facts. The Brits aver that the two arrested special ops soldiers – members of the Special Reconnaissance Regiment – were moved from the Basra jail to a private home during the negotiations for their release. After British tanks knocked down a wall, troops busted into the jail, held the Iraqi police at gunpoint until they revealed the soldiers’ whereabouts, and the pair were freed.
The Iraqis, in the person of Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, say the soldiers never left the jail, were not handed over to a militia group, and that the whole incident was provoked by a “rumor” that the pair were about to be executed. The Iraqis, for their part, have their own version of what went down, as the Washington Post reports:
“Iraqi security officials on Monday variously accused the two Britons they detained of shooting at Iraqi forces or trying to plant explosives.”
Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive: they could have been shooting at Iraqi forces – indeed, they killed at least one policemen, when he approached the pair – and trying to plant explosives. But never mind…
At any rate, the disagreements continue over what was found in the pair’s possession. In spite of initial BBC Radio reports that the car the Brits were cruising around in was packed full of explosives, the BBC News site now avers that the Iraqis found nothing more untoward than “assault rifles, a light machine gun, an anti-tank weapon, radio gear, and medical kit. This is thought to be standard kit for the SAS operating in such a theater of operations.”
An antitank weapon – standard operating equipment? That sounds rather doubtful. Look at this photo of what was recovered from the car, and you tell me if that haul seems rather a lot more than just your Spooks’ Standard Issue spying kit. On the question of what was found in the car, Sheik Hassan al-Zarqani, a spokesman for the Mahdi Army, the organization headed up by firebrand Shi’ite leader Moqtada Sadr, had this to say:
“What our police found in their car was very disturbing – weapons, explosives, and a remote control detonator. These are the weapons of terrorists. We believe these soldiers were planning an attack on a market or other civilian targets, and thanks be to god they were stopped and countless lives were saved.”
Furthermore, Sheik al-Zarqani says, the two Brits were not just in “traditional Arab dress,” as several news reports aver, but were disguised in the uniform worn by members of the Mahdi Army. The Brits, says the Sheik, have some ‘splaining to do:
“Why were these men dressed as Mahdi Army? Why were they carrying explosives and where were they planning to detonate their bomb?”
Good questions, all – and perhaps some context will give us at least a direction to go in for some answers. The Washington Post reports the latest attacks, attributed either to Sunni insurgents or to al-Qaeda and the network associated with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi:
“In continuing violence elsewhere in Iraq Monday, a car bomb exploded amid Shi’ite pilgrims marching and driving to the holy city of Karbala, killing five and wounding 12, said Capt. Muthanna Ahmed, a spokesman for Babil province police. Iraq’s Shi’ites head to the holy city at this time in an annual ritual to mark the birthday of the Imam Mahdi.
“The car bombing occurred in Latifiya, an insurgent stronghold 25 miles south of Baghdad, and was followed 10 minutes later by mortar shells that wounded four more people, Ahmed said. One of those killed and four of the wounded belonged to the Mahdi Army, the Shi’ite militia led by Sadr, said Sahib Amiri, one of Sadr’s aides in Najaf.”
Okay, let’s look at this timeline: On Sunday, a cleric associated with the local Sadrist group is arrested by the British, along with two others. On Monday a Mahdi Army militant is killed in a “terrorist” bombing, leaving four others injured. That same day, a Sadrist demonstration demanding the release of the cleric and his associates is held in the vicinity of the mayor’s office: a white car containing two individuals who are “acting suspiciously,” as one Iraqi police officer put it, turns out to be undercover British soldiers who fire on police when approached.
All very suspicious – almost comically so, given the context. Because suspicions of British involvement in terrorist attacks routinely attributed to Sunni militants and the Zarqawi network are nothing new for this area. In April of last year, Basra was the scene of a Sadrist-led demonstration in which hundreds were out in the streets blaming the British for a recent spate of bombings:
“‘We have evidence that the British were involved in the attacks,’ said Sadr spokesman Sheik Abdul Satar al-Bahadli. He did not elaborate.
“‘You [British occupation troops] have failed to provide security, so leave it to the Iraqi police and militia to sort it out,’ he told Agence France-Presse.
“Some 800 supporters of Sadr meanwhile gathered outside his office here to protest Wednesday’s attacks.
“At least 68 people, including 20 children, were killed and about 100 others were wounded in the deadly series of coordinated suicide bomb attacks. Most of the dead were from almost simultaneous suicide car bombings outside three police stations in Basra, causing carnage in the busy streets as people headed to work.”
The Sadrist demonstrators carried banners whose slogans sketched the general outlines of a tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory that attributes all the evils befalling them to “foreign occupiers”:
“‘The people and the police are hand in hand with our religious leaders and they will not bow to the occupiers.’ ‘The Iraqi people say that Al-Qaeda is not involved in the attacks, which must be blamed on the criminal Tony Blair,’ or ‘Al-Qaeda is a US deception to justify the occupation of Islamic countries,’ others said.”
With the discovery of two British spies decked out in dark wigs and trying to look like just a couple of ordinary jihadis, the Sadrists have been given plenty of grist for their mill: no wonder they are often described as gaining in popularity. Not without a little help from the Brits – and could that be what is really going on?
The followers of Moqtada al-Sadr are by no means pro-occupation, but they are equally anti-Iranian – militant nationalists who oppose the decentralism advocated by other Shi’ite factions, which would essentially create an autonomous region in the solid Shi’ite south of the country. Such a semi-independent republic in a loose federation would soon come under the dominating influence of Iran – which already is extending its influence at the federal as well as the local level via its sock-puppets in SCIRI, the Badr Organization, and the Da’wa Party. The only nationalistic counterweight to the pro-Iranian Shi’ite secessionists is Sadr and his Mahdi Army. By deliberately creating an incident that strengthens the Sadrist hand, the balance of power in the south is maintained, however precariously and momentarily.
This is, admittedly, far-fetched: but then so are the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent meltdown of the occupation, both of which strain the boundaries of probability, at least in a rational world. But we aren’t living in a rational world anymore, not since the 9/11 terrorist attacks ripped a hole in the space-time continuum and we slipped into the Bizarro universe, where up is down, logic is illogic, and British authorities charged with keeping order in occupied Iraq deliberately provoke their charges into paroxysms of paranoia.
Alternatively, it could be that the Brits were targeting the Mahdi Army, which has fought occupation troops and is constantly causing trouble as far away as Baghdad. Perhaps, after all, they were just handing out candy to children…
It doesn’t matter much in the end whether or not the Brits were engaged in some funny business in Basra: what matters is that they appear to have done so. That may be enough to plunge a heretofore relatively quiet region of Iraq into civil war and chaos.
A British contingent that was widely believed to have been on its way home will be indefinitely delayed: the rumored withdrawal canceled, because, you see, to leave now would just make things worse. Or so the story goes…
There is a lot of nonsense floating around about the circumstances surrounding this incident, not the least of which is the canard that the Iraqi police have been “infiltrated” by “insurgents” and that’s why the two Brit spies were supposedly in danger and had to be “rescued.” The reality is that the Mahdi Army, SCIRI, and all the other Muslim party-backed militias are part of the elected government of Iraq: their representatives sit in the National Assembly, where they have a majority when they vote as a bloc. They aren’t “insurgents” – they’re supposed to be our allies! As they stand up, George W. Bush tells us, America will stand down. So how are they suddenly “insurgents”?
The spectacle of Britain’s defense minister, John Reid, calling on the Iraqi authorities demanding “answers” reflects a breathtaking arrogance. It is the Brits who have to come up with some answers, and quickly, before the situation on the ground degenerates any further. Already, the local government authorities in Basra, including the governor, have unanimously voted to cease all cooperation with the British occupiers.
No amount of spinning and outright lying – the British government initially denied there was even a confrontation, and claimed that the two were released as a result of “negotiations” – is going to let them wriggle out of this one. London has a full-scale rebellion on its hands, and if the Iraqis aren’t sufficiently appeased, the revolt could soon spread northward, to the American sector, in which case it would become Washington’s problem, too.
As I wrote in January 2004, when the U.S. was holding out in support of its “caucus” plan, which would have forbidden the Iraqis direct elections and instead imposed a system in which America’s favored sock puppets would come out on top, a giant awakens in the form of rising Shi’ite political power:
“So far, the Shi’ites have stood on the sidelines, waiting for the chance to take advantage of their majority status and impose an Islamic ‘republic’ on the rest of the country. Centered in the south, which has not seen, up until now, the kind of guerrilla violence that regularly erupts in the infamous ‘Sunni Triangle,’ such groups as the pro-Iranian Badr Brigade and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), have been patient, and so far refrained from violence – except against Christian merchants who sell alcohol and other un-Islamic consumer items. The occupiers, up to this point, have had no serious trouble from SCIRI and allied groups. That could change rapidly, and dramatically, as the Ayatollah Sistani has pointed out, if the Americans insist on their caucus plan.”
The Ayatollah Sistani – who still refuses to meet with the Americans, by the way – swept away the caucus plan with a single fatwa. Now the Americans are drawing another line in the sand and daring the Shi’ites to cross it. If they do – if they demand the return of real sovereignty – the occupiers will have to either back down or fight. The consequences of this are not hard to foresee, but may have been a bit less discernible over a year and a half ago, when I described this looming confrontation:
“So far, the Americans have come up against those they call ‘Saddamists’ – by which term is meant followers of Saddam Hussein, not Oscar Wilde. These ‘holdouts’ and ‘dead enders’ are the ‘remnants’ of the Ba’athist Party, we are confidently assured, as if the insurgency is petering out along with the effects of Saddam’s reign. Yet attacks on occupation forces, in terms of ferocity, numbers, and geographical reach, are increasing. It hardly takes a strategic genius to see that the fuel of Shi’ite fury spread over this smoldering rebellion will stoke the fires of resistance – and quite possibly flare up into a regional conflagration that could bring in Iran, and possibly others.”
A regional war, dragging Iran and quite possibly Syria into the Iraqi maelstrom, is precisely what some elements in the administration are hoping for. The seeds of a Middle Eastern conflagration were planted the moment U.S. and British troops set foot on Iraqi soil. Today, in Basra, we are reaping the whirlwind.
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