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British Arrests of Police Strain Relations in Basra

Several have been freed, but eight officers remain in custody. Local Iraqi officials demand their release and threaten to sever ties with troops.

January 26, 2006|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Tensions continued to simmer Wednesday between local Iraqi officials and British troops in the Shiite-dominated southern city of Basra, where the British this week arrested 14 law enforcement officials, including two senior police intelligence officers, allegedly linked to political corruption and assassinations.

The British released several of the men Wednesday, but a spokesman for the Basra provincial council said that eight remained in custody, including three who had been transferred to a prison facility after British authorities said they had bomb-making materials in their possession.

Among the officers still being held by the British are Maj. Jasim Qasim Hassan Daraji, Basra's deputy chief of intelligence, and intelligence officer Capt. Abbas Munis Abdalali Hilfi.

The province has responded to the arrests by threatening to cut off all cooperation with British forces in Iraq's second-largest city.

"For some time, the British forces have made random arrests in a provocative way against the citizens of Basra without the knowledge of the local government," said a statement released by provincial officials. "We have demanded over and over that these forces stop these arrests and release detainees, but all in vain."

Iraqi officials also demanded the unconditional release of the police officers and threatened to "suspend all dealings with British forces" if the men were not freed by Wednesday afternoon.

Maj. Peter Cripps, a British military spokesman in Basra, said the arrests were part of an ongoing investigation of police corruption.

"These men were all part of the former internal affairs department that was disbanded by the Ministry of Interior and are now in the criminal intelligence unit and the serious crimes unit," Cripps said. "They are alleged to be following their own agenda, including corruption, assassinations and persecutions of citizens."

Although Basra, a predominately Shiite Muslim port city and oil hub, has experienced less of the insurgent violence that has wracked Baghdad, it has seen a wave of sectarian-driven killings and political attacks since the beginning of last year. Shiite militia members are believed to have a strong presence in the police force.

In October, scores of Iraqi policemen raided the Thar Allah Party headquarters, a small militant Shiite political organization based in Basra, and burned the building down. Four Thar Allah members were killed in the incident. Party leaders blamed Al Fadila al Islamiya, or the Islamic Virtue Party, which holds a narrow majority on the Basra provincial council, and Al Mahdi militia. Both groups are associated with radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr.

And in September, Shiite militiamen clashed with British troops after tanks rescued four British soldiers from a Basra jail.

In recent months, British officials in Iraq and in London have also complained that Basra militiamen may be involved in bomb attacks against British troops, using ordnance fashioned in Iran. Basra is a suspected hub for Iranian intelligence agents.

"The Iranians have interests in Basra and have organizations in Basra, Amarah and Nasiriya," said Mansour Alkanaan, an Iraqi National Assembly member from Basra.

In Baghdad, meanwhile, members of the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite bloc that won the most seats in the parliament elected Dec. 15, named four Shiite candidates for prime minister to be chosen by its members. Candidates include current Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, Adel Abdul Mehdi of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, deputy parliament speaker Hussein Shahristani and Fadila party member Nadim Jabiri.

In initial negotiations with Kurdish and Sunni Muslim Arab legislators on the new government, United Iraqi Alliance member Baha Araji said the Shiite bloc would not consult with other coalitions on the selection of prime minister, but would offer the presidency to a Sunni Arab candidate.

However, Saad Ilyan, a member of Iraqi National Dialogue, a Sunni Arab party, said he would be satisfied to keep the incumbent president, Jalal Talabani, a Kurd. The Kurdish slate won the second-highest vote total in the December election.

"We only now want the security situation to be better, whether the government is going to be Sunni, Shiite or Kurdish," Ilyan said.

In other developments, the Iraqi Ministry of Justice announced Wednesday that it would release five of eight female detainees today as part of a larger release program. This month, a group claiming to be the abductors of American freelance journalist Jill Carroll issued a statement demanding the release of all female prisoners in Iraq.

The five are in U.S. custody, but Iraqi and U.S. officials have denied any connection between the planned releases and the kidnappers' demands.

Carroll's condition is unknown, as is the fate of two German contractors who were kidnapped near the northern oil refinery in Baiji and two Kenyan engineers seized last week. More than 250 foreigners and hundreds of Iraqis have been kidnapped since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Times staff writers Suhail Ahmad, Shamil Aziz and Saif Rasheed, special correspondent Asmaa Waguih and a special correspondent in Basra contributed to this report.

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