Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Basra Bizarre: SAS Commandos Arrested and Sprung

Two British commandos, members of the secretive SAS were arrested by Iraqi police yesterday in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. The two men, dressed in Arab garb and driving an unmarked car, drew the attention of police. As the car was approached, shots were fired. Conflicting reports make the timeline of the exchange of fire unclear, and there are also discrepancies concerning caualties, some saying one policeman was wounded and/or killed, others claiming two police dead, while still others claim none were killed. But what is clear: the two soldiers were taken into custody and questioned by an Iraqi judge.

Some hours after the incident, British reinforcements arrived at the jail, demanding the release of their colleagues. When refused, the British knocked down at least one wall of the jail. Reports with either a tank, several tanks, or armoured personnel carrier: again accounts are diverse. Everyone does agree; there was helicopter support for the rescue operation, and at least one tank was later set afire by angry mobs, hurling stones and petrol bombs. Crowds had apparently been drawn to the jail by flying squads of rabble-rousers, blaring news of a killed policeman and the arrest of the British over car-mounted loudspeakers.

Word of the shooting spread through the city, already edgy because of the heightened bombing campaigns against religious sites and observances. (This week marks the beginning of the Karbala Festival, marking the birth of Imam Mohammed al-Mahdi in 868 A.D. on the Christian calendar. It's expected to draw as many as 3 million pilgrims, providing ample opportunities for car and suicide bombings.) These attacks have been cited by Iranian officials as a deliberate ploy by the Americans and their allies, ostensibly to justify the continuation of the occupation. It's a sentiment broadly shared in Iraq.

Curiously, B.B.C. World Radio reports initially identified the car the SAS drove as being: "full of explosives and bomb making equipment." It's a quote I'm unable at this hour (S19) to corroborate. In fact, none among the several articles relating to this strange tale broach the questions: Why did the shooting start? Why were the men there? What was in the car?

Media emphasis is now quickly shifting to the block-buster rescue mission. An estimated 150 others held in the prison took the opportunity to escape custody. But, that too is a point made moot by counter-claims stating none escaped.

One thing is certain tonight: The relatively quiet British-Iraqi relationship in the south is fast deteriorating.

Also today, 38 year-old reporter Fakher Haider was found dead in Basra. His body showed signs of severe trauma. He was shot to death. Haider becomes the 55th journalist killed in Iraq since the fall of the Hussein regime.


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