British vehicles crash into Basra jail
The Age | September 19, 2005
Tensions between British forces and Shi'ites in southern Iraq are at a dangerous and chaotic low after British armoured forces smashed down a jail wall and freed two British undercover soldiers who had been arrested by Iraqi police.
Iraqi authorities in the southern oil city of Basra claimed that British armoured vehicles demolished part of its main jail and snatched the two men - thought to be commandos in Arab clothing who allegedly fired on Iraqi police officers.
Britain's Defence Ministry, though, said the two men were released as a result of negotiations. But it stopped short of denying that the jail had been raided.
Whatever the truth, the incident was part of a chaotic day of rioting, in which at least two Iraqis were killed.
The clashes raise questions about how much sovereignty Iraqi authorities have really been granted when the US-led Coalition Provision Authority handed over power to an interim Iraqi government in the northern summer of 2004.
It's not clear what effect it might have on the work of Australian troops protecting Japanese forces in the city of Samawah, north-west of Basra.
Outside Basra jail, a melee broke out in the streets as angry demonstrators attacked the encircling British armour with stones and Molotov cocktails.
During the chaos, one British soldier could be seen scrambling for his life from a burning Warrior armoured personnel carrier and the rock-throwing mob.
Press Association, the British news agency, reported that three British soldiers were hurt during the violence, but said none of their injuries was life-threatening.
After nightfall, 10 British armoured vehicles returned to the jail, crashed through walls and freed the two captives, witnesses said. An Associated Press reporter saw the vehicles smash into the jail.
While witnesses and officials said the British raid used "tanks," it was not clear whether the tracked vehicles were Challenger 2 Main Battle Tanks or Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicles, both in use by British forces in Iraq.
The arrests of the two British soldiers appeared to have been the first real and public test of how far that sovereignty extends.
There have been no known incidents of Iraqi authorities arresting US soldiers operating in the Iraqi heartland.
Mohammed al-Waili, the governor of Basra province, condemned the British for raiding the prison, an act he called "barbaric, savage and irresponsible".
"A British force of more than 10 tanks backed by helicopters attacked the central jail and destroyed it. This is an irresponsible act," al-Waili said, adding that the British force had spirited the prisoners away to an unknown location.
Aquil Jabbar, an Iraqi television cameraman who lives across the street from the Basra jail, said about 150 Iraqi prisoners fled as British commandos stormed inside and rescued their comrades.
While the Shi'ite-dominated south of Iraq, where 8,500 British troops are based, has been far quieter than US-patrolled Sunni regions to the north, Britons have come under increasingly frequent attacks in recent weeks.
The British military has reported 96 deaths since the war began in 2003.
That compares with the deaths of 1,899 Americans elsewhere.
Basra authorities reported arresting the two Britons, described as special forces commandos dressed in Arab clothing, for allegedly shooting two Iraqi policemen, one of whom died.
British armour then encircled the jail where the two Britons were held.
Television cameramen from Arab satellite broadcasters in the Persian Gulf were allowed to photograph the two men, who appeared to be Westerners and who were by that time sitting on the floor in the jail in blue jeans and T-shirts, their hands tied behind their backs.
One of the men had a bandage covering most of the top of his head, the other had blood on his clothes. Television commentary identified them only as Britons.
Last modified October 7, 2005