Monday, December 25, 2006

British Troops Raid Iraqi Police Station, Killing 7

By MARC SANTORA
Published: December 25, 2006
The New York Times

BAGHDAD, Dec. 25 – Hundreds of British soldiers laid siege to a police station in the southern city of Basra today, killing seven gunmen, rescuing 127 prisoners from almost certain execution and ultimately reducing the building to rubble.

The focus of the attack was an arm of the local police called the Special Crimes Unit, which British officials said had been thoroughly infiltrated by criminals and militia members who had used it to terrorize local residents and violently settle scores with political or tribal rivals.

“The Serious Crimes Unit was at the center of death squad activity,” said Maj. Charlie Burbridge, a spokesman for the British military.

When British forces eventually gained control of the facility, they found the prisoners being held in conditions Major Burbridge described as “appalling.” More than 100 men were crowded into a single cell, 30 feet by 40 feet, with two open toilets, two sinks and just a few blankets spread over the concrete floor.

A significant number showed signs of being tortured, he said. Some had crushed hands and feet, others had cigarette and electrical burns and a significant number had gunshot wounds to their legs and knees.

Although some local officials, including Basra’s police chief, publicly condemned the raid, local residents privately said they were grateful and painted an image of an organization widely feared for its brutality.

“They are like savage dogs that bite when they are hungry,” said one resident who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “Their evaluation of guilt or innocence is how much money you can pay.”

Residents said that people were afraid to challenge them because they were backed by powerful militia groups including the Mahdi army, which is controlled by the rebel cleric Moktada al-Sadr.
“Everyone wants to avoid the mouth of the lion,” one resident said. “From this, they became stronger and stronger.”

Major Burbridge said that the dismantling of the Special Crimes Unit had been being planned for months.

As far back as 2004, he said, there was a growing realization that the police had been widely infiltrated by members of various militia and elements of organized crime. To combat their influence, the British have been trying to cull them from the forces in a campaign called Operation Sinbad, which began in September.

After trying to determine who was fit to serve in the police, the British began outfitting officers with sophisticated identification cards meant to limit the access of imposters to police intelligence, weapons and vehicles.

They are also working with the Iraqis at a new police academy.

In late October, gunmen -- believed by the British to have been connected to the Special Crimes Unit -- ambushed a mini-bus carrying 17 employees of the academy and slaughtered them all. Their mutilated remains were dumped in the Shuaiba area of the city in an effort to intimidate the local population.

“It had simply gone beyond the pale and it was clear it was time for the Special Crimes Unit to go,” Maor. Burbridge said in an interview.

Three nights ago, in preparation for today’s raid, British and Iraqi forces arrested a key leader of the unit.

While they planned to take over the station today, British forces had to speed up the operation.
“We received information late last night that the crimes unit was aware this was going to take place and we received information that the prisoners lives were in danger,” Maj. Burbridge said.
More than 800 British soldiers, supported by five Challenger tanks and roughly 40 Warrior fighting vehicles, began their assault at 2 a.m. this morning. They were also aided by 600 Iraqi soldiers.

The British force approaching from the west came under attack as made their way to the building, facing rocket propelled grenades and small arms fire. Six of the gunmen were killed as they made their way through the city.

When they reached the station, one guard in a watchtower fired at the approaching forces and he was also killed.

Several dozen members of the Special Crimes Unit who had been occupying the building fled and are still free, according to the British military. After taking the prisoners into custody and turning them over to the Iraqis, the two-story building was demolished.

The building had symbolic importance because before the war it had been used by Saddam Hussein’s police and many of those taken there were never heard from again.

It was also the site more than a year ago of one of the British army’s most dramatic clashes. After two British special-forces soldiers were captured by militants, they stormed the building. Residents rioted after the raid and there was a dramatic video of young boys hurling stones at a burning British armored fighting vehicle parked outside the station. Ultimately, the soldiers were released as the result of negotiations.

The British military today released video images of the building’s destruction.

The entire battle lasted nearly three hours and no British soldiers were killed. But the streets around the station were littered with bombed out cars and rubble.

The violence in Basra, Iraq’s second largest city, is different than that in Baghdad to the north or Anbar province to the west.

There are really three separate wars in this country, all connected, yet each distinct.
In Baghdad in recent months, the heaviest violence has been the result of sectarian killing, as the Shia steadily drive Sunnis from mixed neighborhoods and Sunnis retaliate, primarily with bomb attacks. On Monday, at least 10 civilians were killed and 15 wounded when a car bomb exploded in the mixed neighborhood of Jadida. In northeastern Baghdad, a suicide bomber with explosives tied to his body blew himself up on a crowded bus, killing two people and wounding another 20 passengers. An American soldier also died in Baghdad on Monday in a roadside bomb attack.

In Sunni-controlled Anbar province, where the fighting is mainly between insurgents and American troops, two U.S. soldiers were killed in fighting Sunday.

In southern cities like Basra, dominated by Shia, the fighting is a combination of battles between rival militias vying for power, warring tribes and organized crime.

“In northern Basra, the fighting is mainly between three warring tribes,” Major Burbridge said. “The death squads are typically related to political maneuvering and tribal gain. Then there are rogue elements of militias aiming attacks on the multi-national forces.”

“You throw all those elements into a melting pot and you get a picture of the complexity of what we are facing,” he said.

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