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December 26, 2006
British Turn Against Basra Police

One of the differences between the British and American zones in Iraq has been the more laissez-faire approach taken by the British in the South when it comes to the Shi'ite militias. They have infiltrated the local police forces in greater numbers in that region, turning what should be law-enforcement positions into vigilante gangs attempted to seek retribution for decades of Sunni oppression. The British have apparently tired of this, and this week they have taken action against the worst of the offenders:

About 1,000 British and Iraqi troops raided a police station in the southern city of Basra on Monday, killing seven gunmen and taking custody of more than 100 prisoners who were believed to be marked for execution by a renegade police unit.

Many of the prisoners at the Jamiat police station showed signs of torture, including cigarette and electrical burns, gunshot wounds in their legs and knees, and hands that had been crushed, said Capt. Tane Dunlop, a spokesman for British forces in Iraq. The station, a base for a squad known as the serious crimes unit, was later blown up by British forces.

The targeted unit "was in fact living up to its name," Dunlop said. "It was conducting serious crimes rather than preventing it."

Iraqi police forces are widely thought to be infiltrated by Shiite militias, but British military spokesmen said the rogue elements in this particular unit were involved in gang-like activity rather than sectarian killings. Still, the episode highlighted the challenges U.S.-led coalition forces face in preparing the Iraqi army and police to secure their own country. Training Iraqi forces to do so is considered key to any U.S. troop withdrawal.

The British warned the Iraqis that they intended to forcibly disband the unit, and last Friday started by arresting the commanders of the precinct. The Coalition believes one of them masterminded the murder of 17 civilian employees of the police department. The prisoners then got freed in the commando-style raid on Monday and handed over to the Iraqi Army, where discipline is better.

This demonstrates a big problem in the Iraqi government, specifically the Ministry of the Interior, which has responsibility for the police. Moqrada al-Sadr controls that ministry as part of his support for Nouri al-Maliki and the ruling political coalition. Under Sadr's influence, the militias have far too much infiltration into the command structure of the police departments, making it almost impossible to rely on them for actual law enforcement.

This is one of the observations that the ISG got right, and their recommendation to move the national police from the MoI to the Ministry of Defense should get more attention -- if Sadr allows it. The MoD has a much better track record of staying within its mission, and thankfully Sadr has not been allowed to infiltrate it to anywhere near the extent of the MoI. Unfortunately, the ISG also recommended more law-enforcement power for the MoI and their local police units, which would only exacerbate the problem of Sadr's vendettas.

The best solution, and one the ISG pointedly avoids, is the removal of Moqtada al-Sadr from the scene. Maliki has opposed this action, but the source of Maliki's problems and that of Iraq in general have been Sadr's radical influence within the MoI. Once he gets jettisoned from the government, his Mahdis then get stripped of any quasi-official sanction, and the Coalition can resolve the issue permanently, assuming they have the resolve this time to do it.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at December 26, 2006 5:36 AM

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