British Storm Basra Jail with Tanks
Sabrina Tavernise of the New York Times gives the only account of alarming events in Basra I have yet seen that makes sense.
The Guardian seems to me to have left out some key information.
Anyway, here’s my timeline for what happened.
The BBC reports that “Fusilier Donal Anthony Meade, 20, from Plumstead in south east London, and Fusilier Stephen Robert Manning, 22, from Erith in Kent, were killed by a roadside bomb on 5 September 2005 . . . They had been travelling in a convoy which was hit about five miles east of Shaibah airbase, in Basra province.”
The British appear to have believed that this attack was the work of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.
The BBC reports, “Major Matthew Bacon was killed in an attack in Basra, in southern Iraq, on 11 September 2005 when a roadside bomb struck the armoured vehicle he was travelling.”
So the British are facing increased casualties and concerted attacks in early September. Convinced that the attacks are coming from Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, they finally move against that group on Sunday.
BBC World Monitoring
September 18, 2005
FURTHER ON AL-SADR AIDE’S ARREST IN BASRA
Text of report from Iraqi Al-Sharqiyah TV on 18 September
An Iraqi-British force at dawn arrested a prominent close associate of Al-Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr in Basra City, southern Iraq. A spokesman for the British Army confirmed what Al-Sadr’s Office in Basra announced, saying that Shaykh Ahmad al-Fartusi was arrested in his house along with his brother and a third man. The British spokesman said that the arrest took place following an investigation by the multinational forces regarding individuals who carried out terrorist attacks against the multinational forces.
Source: Al-Sharqiyah, Baghdad, in Arabic 1210 gmt 18 Sep 05″
This is the Multinational Forces announcement:
In the early hours of Sept. 18, an operation was conducted by Multi National Division – South East in the districts of Al Jameat and Tuninah in Basra. This operation was the result of an ongoing Multi-National Force investigation that identified individuals believed to be responsible for organizing terrorist attacks against Coalition forces, resulting in the deaths of nine members of Coalition forces in the past two months in Basra. The operation resulted in three individuals being detained.
Among those arrested are Sheik Ahmed Majid Farttusi and Sayyid Sajjad, known leaders of the Mahdi Militia in Basra.
“I am well aware that the people that we have arrested are prominent individuals in Basra,” commented Brigadier John Lorrimer, British Army commander of the 12th Mechanized Brigade in Basra. “But let me make it absolutely clear: we have acted against them as individuals, not as members of any particular organization. As the people of Basra you are entitled to your own religious beliefs and political opinions. Those are not matters for MNF. We will not, however, tolerate terrorism and will act against it whenever we can.”
There were immediate protests by Sadrists in Basra, who barricaded the streets in the center of the city. AP reported that “200 militiamen with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades set fire to tires as they barricaded main streets”. But then Muqtada’s envoys dispersed them, asking them to stand down.
On Monday there were further protests by Sadrists about the detainment of Shaikh Ahmad Fartusi and other Sadrist leaders.
The Washington Post reported, “Earlier Monday, gunmen loyal to Sadr attacked the house of Basra’s governor to press demands for the release of two prominent members of the cleric’s militia whom British forces arrested Sunday.”
Two British undercover men seem to have seen something suspicious and intervened. But somehow they got involved in a firefight with Iraqi government police. The two Britons were slightly wounded and were captured by Iraqi police (which seems to be penetrated by the Badr Corps, the Sadrists and other Shiite paramilitaries.)
Then a Sadrist crowd tried to storm the jail where the two British special forces operatives were being held by the provincial government. The Shiite crowds appear to have intended to hold them as hostages to be traded for Fartusi et al.
It was at that point that the British tanks rolled against the jail.
In freeing the two Britons, they inadvertently let 150 other prisoners escape, presumably some of them involved in the guerrilla movement. Two Iraqis were killed in related violence.
Then crowds attacked British military vehicles, setting 2 afire with Molotov cocktails.
The entire episode reeks of “dual sovereignty,” in which there are two distinct sources of government authority. Social historian Charles Tilly says that dual sovereignty signals a revolutionary situation.
Note that in Basra, a city of about 1.3 million, largely Shiite, the Muqtada al-Sadr group is not very big. Most Sadrists belong to the rival al-Fadila party, led by Muhammad Yaqubi. But small groups can cause a lot of trouble.
In other news, there were bombings outside Karbala and at Mahmudiyah targetting Shiite pilgrims to the holy city of Karbala to commemorate Muhammad al-Mahdi, the Shiite promised one. Several pilgrims were killed.