BASRA (Reuters) â€” Iraqi police staged an angry anti-British protest in Basra on Wednesday as London and Baghdad sought to quell tension over a British raid to free two undercover soldiers held in the southern city.
About 200 policemen who work at the police station damaged during the British raid marched through the streets, calling for the city police chief to be fired and for the “British terrorists” to be returned to Iraqi jurisdiction.
British forces raided the police station and jail to free two undercover soldiers who were detained by Iraqi security forces following a firefight on Monday.
In the raid, British armoured vehicles crushed the walls of the jail before troops rescued the men said by the British to have been held by a militia group who had gained custody of them from police.
But Iraq’s interior minister disputed the British military’s account. Bayan Jabor told the BBC the men had never left police custody, or the jail, and were not handed to militants.
The Iraqi government said in a statement there was no crisis with Britain, but senior Iraqi officials have castigated the raid, with Basra province governor calling it a “barbaric act.”
In London, Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari met Defence Secretary John Reid to discuss the incident and afterwards the two told reporters diplomatic ties had not been harmed.
“It will not affect the relationship between Iraq and Britain,” said Reid, who is under pressure over the deployment of 8,500 troops and has faced calls for a withdrawal timetable.
Asked if British troops should not immediately withdraw, Reid referred the question to Jaafari, who said they should not.
The Iraqi prime minister, returning from New York, said he did not know the details about the raid, but said an investigation had been launched and would establish the facts.
Iraq’s national security adviser, Mowaffaq Rubaie, told Reuters the investigation would focus on whether the two British men were in fact handed over to a militia group and whether they were found in an annexe to the jail or a private house.
Surge in militia activity
Basra, a mainly Shiite Muslim city, has experienced a surge in militia activity over the past nine months, with armed Shiite factions vying for influence in the security forces and the local council.
The militias are also believed to have carried out attacks on British troops, three of whom have been killed by roadside bombs this month, and on journalists exposing their activities.
Iraqi authorities admitted that insurgents had infiltrated the police and other security forces in Basra and elsewhere.
“Our Iraqi security forces in general, and these in particular and in many parts of Iraq, I have to admit that they have been penetrated by some of the insurgents,” Rubaie told the BBC on Tuesday.
He said he did not know the extent of the infiltration, but said new procedures were in place to get rid of bad apples.
British commander Colonel Bill Dunham, chief of staff for multinational forces in Basra, also pointed to security force infiltration as a major problem. “It is something that affects the Iraqi police across Iraq as a whole,” he told BBC Radio.
“We are aware of rogue elements in the Iraqi police service. The trick that we have to pull off now with the Iraqi authorities is to identify those elements, to weed them out and to reinforce the good parts of the Iraqi police service.”
Britain has spent the past 2-1/2 years securing Basra and building up its security forces in the expectation that Iraqi forces could take over and allow British troops to withdraw.
The acknowledgement that more than two years’ work has essentially failed to produce a functioning police force is likely to provoke anger among Iraqis, whose chief concern has always been security and who want foreign troops to leave.
Southern Iraq is home to several Shiite militias, including one loyal to radical cleric Moqtada Sadr who fiercely opposes the presence of foreign troops and has led uprisings against the US military. Many Iraqis say the heavily armed militias act with impunity and are not answerable to the central government.
Tensions in Basra had risen on Sunday when British forces arrested three leading members of Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia.
In Baghdad on Wednesday, US and Iraqi forces traded fire for several hours with insurgents hiding out in a house in the west of the city, before capturing one insurgent, police said. Five rebels, two police and a soldier were killed, they said.
West of the capital and to the north, where a Sunni Arab-led insurgency is fiercest, nine Americans, including five troops, were killed in separate attacks on Monday and Tuesday