By Ellen Knickmeyer and Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 20, 2005
BAGHDAD, Sept. 19 -- British armored vehicles backed by helicopter gunships burst through the walls of an Iraqi jail Monday in the southern city of Basra to free two British commandos detained earlier in the day by Iraqi police, witnesses and Iraqi officials said. The incident climaxed a confrontation between the two nominal allies that had sparked hours of gun battles and rioting in Basra's streets.
An Iraqi official said a half-dozen armored vehicles had smashed into the jail, the Reuters news agency reported. The provincial governor, Mohammed Walli, told news agencies that the British assault was "barbaric, savage and irresponsible."
British officials said three soldiers were hurt in the day's violence, in which at least one armored personnel carrier was destroyed by firebombs. Iraqi officials said at least two civilians were killed.
In London, authorities said the two commandos were released after negotiations. But the BBC quoted British defense officials as saying a wall was demolished when British forces went to "collect" the men.
Monday's violence underscored the increasing volatility of Basra, a Shiite Muslim-majority city that had previously escaped much of the violence of the Sunni Muslim-led insurgency. Tension has been growing between British forces in the city and Shiite police and militias that operate there.
On Monday, an Iraqi reporter working for the New York Times was found shot dead on the outskirts of Basra with his hands bound, his family and security sources said. The reporter, Fakher Haider, had been handcuffed and taken away from his home Sunday night by four masked men who said they wanted to interrogate him, his family said.
"This murder of a respected colleague leaves us angry and horrified," Bill Keller, the newspaper's executive editor, said in a statement. "Fakher was an invaluable part of our coverage for more than two years. His depth of knowledge, his devotion to the story and his integrity were much admired by the reporters who worked with him."
Elsewhere in Iraq, anti-corruption investigators said they expected charges against the country's former defense minister, Hazim Shaalan, in the alleged embezzlement of more than $1 billion that was meant to help rebuild the country's security forces.
In Baghdad, Ayman Sabawi, a nephew of deposed president Saddam Hussein, was sentenced last week by an Iraqi court to six years in prison for financing the insurgency and making bombs, said Army Lt. Col. Guy Rudisill, a U.S. military spokesman.
Near the Shiite holy city of Karbala, bomb and mortar attacks killed at least five Shiite pilgrims as millions gathered for an annual religious festival there.
Basra, a city of 1.5 million, is heavily under the control of Shiite political parties and fighters of the Badr militia of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Shiite religious party that has a leading role in Iraq's government.
Citizens and authorities allege that Badr fighters have infiltrated police forces and are carrying out abuses under the guise of police authority. Rivalry also runs strong between those militia fighters and the militia of Moqtada Sadr, a Shiite cleric.
Attacks on Westerners -- once a rare event in Basra -- have targeted British and U.S. diplomatic convoys in recent weeks and killed at least eight Britons and Americans.
Earlier Monday, gunmen loyal to Sadr attacked the house of Basra's governor to press demands for the release of two prominent members of the cleric's militia whom British forces arrested Sunday.
The killing of the New York Times reporter took place six weeks after an American freelance journalist, Steven Vincent, was kidnapped and killed in Basra, allegedly after being taken away in a marked police car. Vincent had published numerous articles, including in the Times, alleging heavy-handedness by Basra security forces and deriding Sadr and other Shiite officials.
Britain is the second-leading contributor of foreign troops to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, with 8,500 troops compared with 140,000 Americans.
Iraqi security officials on Monday variously accused the two Britons they detained of shooting at Iraqi forces or trying to plant explosives. Photographs of the two men in custody showed them in civilian clothes.
When British officials apparently sought to secure their release, riots erupted. Iraqi police cars circulated downtown, calling through loudspeakers for the public to help stop British forces from releasing the two. Heavy gunfire broke out and fighting raged for hours, as crowds swarmed British forces and set at least one armored vehicle on fire.
Witnesses said they saw Basra police exchanging fire with British forces. Sadr's Mahdi Army militia joined in the fighting late in the day, witnesses said. A British military spokesman, Darren Moss, denied that British troops were fighting Basra police.
Another Western military spokesman in Basra confirmed "an ongoing disturbance" in the city on Monday but said Iraqi and British forces were working together to quell it.
In the southern city of Latifiyah, an insurgent stronghold, bombs targeted Shiite pilgrims driving and walking to Karbala for an annual rite. A car bomb hit the crowd of pilgrims first, followed 10 minutes later by mortar rounds, said police Capt. Muthanna Ahmed.
A suicide bomber killed five Iraqi policemen and two civilians Monday when he blew himself up near an Iraqi police commando patrol in Mahmudiyah, about 15 miles south of Baghdad, the Associated Press reported.
Special correspondents Saad Sarhan in Najaf and Omar Fekeiki in Baghdad contributed to this report.