Iraq: our fatal blunder

British forces in the south of Iraq have ceded power to Islamic radical militias. The police recruit

It was at about 3am when they came to Muhammed's home in the poor Khalija el-Arabi district of Basra and took him away. "There were about 20 men who burst through the door," said his brother Faisal. "Some of them were wearing police uniform. Others were in commando jackets and others wore civilian clothes," he said. That was New Year's Eve 2003; Muhammed has not been seen since. His crime had been to be a junior member of the Ba'ath Party, even though his family members were no friends of Saddam Hussein's regime. For this, like many others before him in Basra, he paid with his life.

Faisal was able to track Muhammed's movements as far as the headquarters of what the Iraqi police were then calling their intelligence department, though their British "mentors" referred to it more discreetly as the Special Operations Department.

When I visited the intelligence department at Jamiat Police Station, I found prisoners stiff with fear, bound and gagged, their heads resting on a concrete wall. On that wall was a poster of the former Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini.

More than 18 months after that visit, that same police station was in the news worldwide, for it was there that two SAS soldiers were bound and gagged, and British armoured vehicles broke down a wall during a rescue operation. According to some reports, the SAS men were engaged in an undercover operation to track Iranian agents operating in the city, and after their capture they were handed by Iraqi police directly into the hands of extremist militias.

Violence in Basra comes in waves, so it is hard to see the long-term trends, but it seems clear now that the city - which in April 2003 welcomed the British army with open arms - is becoming more dangerous both for coalition troops and for any westerners. In the past two months two journalists who investigated police corruption have been killed, while insurgents have developed more powerful roadside bombs to use against British patrols.

For politicians in Westminster, the idea that Basra's new British-trained police force might be, to some degree, in league with Britain's enemies seems to have come as a surprise, prompting some to demand a hastened withdrawal. Yet most insiders have known it all along; the religious militias that now threaten British forces have been the hidden hand. They have largely controlled the city since its liberation from Saddam Hussein. The dilemma for the British was always whether to confront or tolerate these forces. One British officer summed it up: "It's not that the extremists have infiltrated Basra's police. They run it."

Since taking over Basra, the British army has been forced to play a dangerous game. Though the level of insurgency it has faced has been lower than that faced by the Americans in northern Iraq, the British forces' potential armed opponents have acquired critical jobs all around them, in the civil administration and the police.

At one police station where British soldiers were conducting basic training in the safe use of AK-47s, an Iraqi recruit noted: "They [the British] are really only giving us the most simple training and weapons, because they know that one day we might be fighting them." At Jamiat last January, the deputy commander, Abbas Abdel Ali, was equally open when I asked him how the station acquired recruits. "From the Badr and Sadr forces," he said. These are the main Shia militias: the Badr Brigade (armed wing of the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or Sciri) and the Sadr army, the more radical of the two groups, which fought a brief war with the coalition forces in April 2004 and is led by Moqtada al-Sadr.

The British soon learned what this meant. They tried to close down the intelligence unit, to remove extremists and train the police in interrogation techniques that did not involve torture - but this drove the worst abuses underground. They discovered a new torture centre hidden in an abandoned nightclub next to a police station. Some men were prosecuted - but not the senior officers who probably ordered these activities. Night after night, meanwhile, the bodies of former Ba'athists, or Christians involved in the alcohol trade, were found dumped on the streets. Witnesses reported that the gangs responsible sometimes wore police uniform.

The parties and the militias differ from one another in a number of ways, including their attitude to the British. The Badr Brigade and its Sciri party, though backed by Iran and keen to establish a new religious state in Iraq, have tended to be reluctant to confront the British. For this reason they have been tolerated as a bulwark against even more extreme elements.

In May, when the uprising by the Sadr militia spread to Basra, I watched from the roof of the Diafa Hotel as the British army fought gun battles with Sadr militias. In broad daylight, Warrior armoured vehicles fired cannon across the Shatt al-Arab River. Though a few of the Iraqi policemen held firm, most melted away at the first sign of trouble. Their AK-47s would have been no match for the rocket-propelled grenades and machine-guns of the militiamen, it is true, but the truth, known to all, was that many of the militia were drawn from the police itself.

On the night of that uprising, the British commander and the governor of Basra held a press conference to announce that the trouble was over and the threat from the Sadr forces had been exaggerated. The officials had arrived by a secure back door, so they did not see what journalists saw: a large poster of Moqtada al-Sadr. This, in the main government building in Basra. There have been other signs. In August last year, a freelance journalist, James Brandon, was kidnapped from the same Diafa Hotel by abductors wearing police uniform. It would be easy to buy or fake the costumes, but the sense that the Iraqi police were indeed complicit was underlined when Brandon escaped and fled to a police station - only to be handed back to the kidnappers.

I was always intrigued, when in Basra, that there was never a general insurrection against the British, who are heavily outnumbered. Certainly there were deadly attacks and at one stage the threat was so great that Challenger battle tanks were needed to escort trucks resupplying the general hospital, yet there was no conflagration. I once asked a British officer whether this was because the extremists did not have so complete a grip on the city's police and government as was generally supposed."No, you're being too simplistic," he replied, explaining that the religious parties and the Badr Brigade did not want a revolt at that time and were keeping the Sadr forces under control. "They have no reason to fight the British; they know they have the majority," he said. "They will take over without a fight."

By the end of last year British intelligence was hearing about a new police squad, known as Internal Affairs, that was sending a chill through the town. It was responsible for capturing and torturing not only alleged criminals but also uniformed members of the Iraqi police who were resisting the political parties.

Should the British have intervened? Should they have tried to purge Basra and its surrounding region of extremists? One difficulty is that, for many people in the city, the Badr Brigade and their ilk are heroes - many of them fought Saddam for years, defeating his fedayeen forces during the 2003 invasion and curbing the looting afterwards. The Sciri party, Badr's political master, now forms part of the elected government of Iraq.

Another difficulty is that though Basra once had a strong educated, secular community, its ranks are severely depleted by years of economic decline and Ba'athist repression. Secularism has grown weak. Most of the population hold strong religious views and many of them see nothing wrong, for example, with the punishment and even execution of alcohol sellers.

British soldiers and officials in Iraq say their political masters ordered them to install democracy. This means that although they have at times intervened, sometimes ruthlessly, to combat extremism, if the extremists carry majority support there is a limit to what can be done. They insist that more heavy-handed intervention would have been counter-productive. As one officer put it: "If we start throwing our weight around, then we would become very quickly the enemy, and we can't afford that." At times this has meant extreme restraint. In al-Amarah, north of Basra, the British had to tolerate the appointment of a governor who, their intelligence indicated, was linked to those responsible for the killing of six members of the Royal Military Police.

No matter what is said in Whitehall, everything is geared towards an exit strategy. If Britain is to withdraw it has to allow the Iraqi security forces, however imperfect, to stand on their own feet. But there is a price to be paid. While Iraq may yet become free and independent, it may become not only a place that rejects western ideas, but one where all outsiders are in danger.

This article first appeared in the 03 October 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: our fatal blunder