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     Volume 4 Issue 66 | October 7, 2005 |

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Food For Thought

Spin, Lies And Narrow Escapes


Farah Ghuznavi

In the last fortnight, the relative calm of Basra in Southern Iraq, under British administration, has been well and truly shattered. The arrest of two (allegedly British) men by the Iraqi authorities, and their subsequent sensational "retrieval" (the details of which are still being disputed), lit the fuse which culminated in a spectacular explosion.

A number of questions remain: Who are the two men and what were they doing outside the Jamiat police station? What prompted British forces to use such force in order to snatch them back? Is it true that they had been handed over to a militia, or that the men inside the station were militia in police uniform?

In the latest twist, an Iraqi judge (chief of the Basra anti-terrorism court) has issued arrest warrants against the soldiers concerned, although British spokesmen claim that these warrants have "no legal basis", because British forces have legal immunity. At the MoD's request, British media obscured the faces of the captives, and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) states that it is obligated to investigate the allegations itself. But the judge remains unconvinced that the two men are British i.e. they may not be entitled to immunity.

The two sides give widely divergent accounts of what happened, but it is not disputed that the men had been sitting in a car outside the police station in Arabic dress, heavily armed and carrying an impressive array of surveillance equipment. It is not inconceivable that the men belong to allied Special Forces (e.g. Australia), or are even "civilian contractors" of the kind hired by the CIA.

But it is their mission that is most significant. Initial attempts by British military spokesmen to downplay events heightened confusion and suspicion, raising spectres of past US military fictions e.g. the bogus "heroic" rescue of Private Jessica Lynch.

Claims of minor violence were quickly disproved by photographs of a soldier leaping from his armoured vehicle, his uniform alight. British troops were supposed to have received only minor injuries, but later one was flown home in a serious condition. Furthermore, it appeared that lethal force was used to suppress the riot, causing an unknown number of Iraqi deaths. It was also claimed that the two undercover men had opened fire after being stopped at a police roadblock, killing at least one policeman.

The result of all this has been a rupture in whatever trust existed between the civil authorities and the military occupiers in Basra. While "external intervention" from Iran (did I miss something? Is the occupation itself indigenous then?) is being blamed for a recent increase in attacks on British forces, initial assumptions that the pair were working to combat such influence have been contradicted by military and other sources. There is scepticism about the Iranian connection, given the abundance of bomb-making expertise available in Iraq, but there are also problems here of Britain's own making.

The truth is that occupation authorities turned a blind eye while Shia militia infiltrated the police force, and are now paying the price. One such group is the notorious Mahdi Army, but less-known militias include one loyal to the current Iraqi Prime Minister, recently seen standing alongside the UK Defence Secretary, condemning the violence!

A breakaway faction of the Mahdi Army is currently seen by many as the greatest danger. Sources in Basra claim that they had turned the Jamiat police station into a hotbed for smuggling, political assassination and organised crime. Trouble was already feared when their leader was arrested, but the seizure of the surveillance team outside the station inflamed an already tense situation; and when British forces surrounded the compound, they were attacked by Iraqi crowds.

Corruption among the poorly trained and ill-disciplined police is another concern. "They sell their uniforms to insurgents for $25 while also taking the wage as a police officer supporting the multinational force," according to one British soldier. "So why do we bother?" Even Basra's police chief admits that he can rely on only 25 percent of his men…

Many feel that the troops are reaping the results of earlier mistakes made in the aftermath of the war. Unnecessary errors, according to Sir Hilary Synott, the ex-administrator of southern Iraq, who was not surprised by what followed: "We needed a very large number of foreign police to train a police force which under Saddam was reduced to traffic duties and extortion - it was a massive task to rebuild a corrupt and hated police force...But we were never given sufficient resources…There was totally insufficient preparation for the post-conflict situation…all the attention was on reconstructing the Iraqi military."

Conspiracy theories, always rife in Iraq, have been fuelled dramatically by recent events, according to Mazin Younis of the Iraqi League, a UK-based Iraqi exile network in close contact with Basra. "Everyone you talk to [thinks that they] were up to something very bad... Being in civilian clothing, wearing Arab clothes, made them look like spies…when you mention the word spy, people really get agitated. Even under Saddam Hussein, people were patriotic, they didn't like foreign spies in their country."

If the situation on the ground has been badly handled, the attitude in London is not reassuring either. Mr Blair clearly intends to go on sidestepping "the Iraq issue", even as it remains the looming elephant in his backyard! At the recent Labour Party conference, the focus was kept firmly (and forcibly) on key domestic issues e.g. health. His strategy was to ignore "urban intellectuals", whom New Labour blames for the continuing protests over Iraq (heaven forbid that they should face up to the possibility of having made some bad decisions themselves!).

The extent of micro-management at the conference was made further evident by Labour's conference managers ruling that there should be no discussion of a strongly-supported resolution which praised the late Robin Cook's commitment to "a world order governed by rules" - fearing that it would be used as an opening to attack the decision to go to war with Iraq without full UN backing. Since when did the idea of a world order governed by rules become a radical concept??

The spectre of the conflict loomed over the eve of the gathering, however, as senior military and diplomatic figures added their voices to calls for an exit strategy. According to the former top mandarin at the Ministry of Defence, Sir Michael Quinlan: "…we shall soon be - if we are not already - doing more harm by staying as perceived occupiers than by departing" (Independent). The increasing disquiet among the public was mirrored in a YouGov poll where 57 percent of those asked stated that British troops should pull out of Iraq, while only 27 percent disagreed.

A good summing up of the situation was: "We attacked a Muslim country on grounds which turned out to be empty. We broke international law. We faced no serious threat from Saddam Hussein and received no authority from the Security Council. We brought about the death of thousands of innocent Iraqis." All very true, of course, but it is clearly a sign of troubled times when a senior Conservative (Douglas Hurd) starts making sense!!

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