Basra Raid Finds Prisoners With Signs of Torture

An Iraqi army soldier stands at a checkpoint at the entrance to Baghdad's Sadr City as U.S. and Iraqi troops searched the sprawling Shiite slum in a bid to neutralize the country's most violent militia.
An Iraqi army soldier stands at a checkpoint at the entrance to Baghdad's Sadr City as U.S. and Iraqi troops searched the sprawling Shiite slum in a bid to neutralize the country's most violent militia. (By Adil Al-khazali -- Associated Press)
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 5, 2007

BAGHDAD, March 5 -- Iraqi special operation forces and British troops swept into an Iraqi intelligence ministry building Sunday morning in the southern city of Basra and found prisoners with signs of torture, British officials said.

All 30 prisoners escaped during the surprise raid, which was triggered by information gleaned from suspects arrested hours earlier in another sweep, a British military spokesman said Monday morning.

"It is unclear how it occurred, but what is clear is that the Iraqi forces did not let them escape," said Maj. David Gell, who called the escape "regrettable."

In a statement, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called the raid an "unlawful and irresponsible act." He ordered an investigation of the raid, but did not comment on the allegations of torture at the facility that was the Basra headquarters of the National Iraqi Intelligence Agency. The spokesman for the Shiite-led Interior Ministry, which controls the agency, could not be reached.

A British military statement said its forces acted quickly because it had gained information hours earlier that presented a high threat. "It was therefore not possible for either the Iraqi units or multinational forces to pre-warn the relevant provincial authorities," it said.

The operation began at 12:45 a.m. when Iraqi special forces and British troops entered the Basra neighborhood of al-Puwaysa, where they arrested five suspects allegedly involved in car-bomb attacks against British forces, as well as kidnappings, torture and murder. Information from the suspects prompted the raid on the intelligence agency compound, Gell said.

The raid highlighted the insecure conditions in Iraq's Shiite-controlled south at a time when Britain has announced a significant drawdown of its forces. It was the latest instance of U.S. and British forces finding evidence of torture in Iraq's Shiite-dominated security and intelligence facilities that has raised questions about human rights and the rule of law in Iraq.

The operation came as more than 1,100 U.S. and Iraqi troops pushed into the Shiite militia haven of Sadr City on Sunday, the largest operation in nearly three years in the sprawling, turbulent slum. Control of the area is viewed as pivotal to stabilizing the capital and preventing Iraq's slide toward civil war.

Riding in Humvees and armored personnel carriers, the troops put up checkpoints and conducted door-to-door searches for illegal weapons and militia fighters. They met no resistance, according to U.S. military, Iraqi officials and residents. No weapons caches were found and no suspects detained, the military said.

The operation represented the most serious effort yet by the government of Maliki to neutralize the Mahdi Army, which is headed by firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and is the country's largest and most violent Shiite militia.

Maliki, a Shiite, has for months faced intense U.S. pressure to send troops into Sadr City and assert the government's authority. But he has long avoided doing so because Sadr, who controls six ministries and 30 seats in parliament, is his political benefactor.

Sunday's push occurred only after Sadr had agreed to support Maliki's new Baghdad security plan, Iraqi officials said, and after negotiations with civil leaders and Sadr's representatives on the role of U.S. troops in Sadr City.


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