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.
The operation lasted several hours and primarily targeted an area near a busy market, according to residents interviewed in Sadr City. By afternoon, there were no signs of U.S. or Iraqi soldiers in the densely crowded streets lined with posters of Sadr and banners lauding the Mahdi Army.
U.S. military officials said they would continue the security sweeps to facilitate a plan to house U.S. and Iraqi troops in a police station on the edge of Sadr City, where as many as 2 million people live. The new military post, similar to those being constructed in other neighborhoods, is a key component of Maliki's security plan to build public trust in Iraq's security forces and ensure that areas are not retaken by insurgents.
"It is a multi-day operation, continuing operation," said Lt. Col. Christopher C. Garver, a U.S. military spokesman.
In Sadr City, black-clad militiamen have vanished from the streets. Senior Sadr officials and Mahdi Army leaders have fled to Shiite cities in southern Iraq or to neighboring Iran. Some fighters said in interviews that they wanted to engage the U.S. troops but were under strict orders from Sadr to maintain a low profile.
"We feel upset, but what can we do?" said Laith Abu Bakr, 34, a Mahdi Army fighter. "We have orders not to act."
Sadr's motive for allowing the security operation in his stronghold was unclear. Some Shiite politicians have suggested he wants to boost his political credentials and improve his image, but others say he hopes to rid his movement of rogue elements and rivals.
Publicly, however, he has started to criticize the U.S. involvement in what he said should be an Iraqi operation. Sadr has long opposed the U.S. occupation and has issued strong calls for a troop withdrawal. In 2004, the Mahdi Army staged an uprising in Shiite areas, prompting U.S. forces to storm Sadr City.
On Sunday, Rahim al-Daraji, the mayor of Sadr City, said "as long as there is an Iraqi leadership, they are most welcome. The Americans can go into Sadr City."
"The people were very cooperative and were very happy because these forces are coming to protect them," he said.
But some residents said they felt safe under militia protection and questioned the presence of U.S. troops.
The Mahdi Army is "treating us very well," said Riyad Hamid Swadi, 40, the owner of a small junk shop. "What are the Americans doing here?"
A senior Sadr official said he did not believe that Sadr had agreed to allow U.S. troops to be stationed inside Sadr City and warned that their presence could provoke the Mahdi Army.
"This will create a spark," Sheik Ayad al-Khabi said. "They are going to drag the Shiites into a fight."
Separately, Maliki announced plans to reshuffle his cabinet in the next two weeks, a move he has promised for months. Maliki's aides have indicated that he intends to replace several Sadr loyalists in charge of key ministries, including the Health Ministry, which has been plagued by allegations of corruption.
Falah Shanshal, of the Sadr bloc in parliament, said that Sadr's supporters had given Maliki a list of replacements for the ministry posts and that they would block attempts to wrest ministries from their control.
Staff writer Ernesto Londoño, special correspondent Saad al-Izzi and other Washington Post staff contributed to this.