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Brits crack down on Basra’s police

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AP: British troops launched a crackdown Tuesday on Basra’s troubled police, arresting several officers in a force long believed infiltrated by extremist Shiite militiamen with ties to neighboring Iran. Associated Press

By ROBERT H. REID
Associated Press Writer

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) — British troops launched a crackdown Tuesday on Basra’s troubled police, arresting several officers in a force long believed infiltrated by extremist Shiite militiamen with ties to neighboring Iran.

Curbing militia power is considered crucial to building trust among Iraq’s rival communities and establishing government authority, but finding a way to do it has proven elusive.

Fourteen people were detained in the early morning raids, British officials said. Nine were released but five others – all policemen – were jailed for alleged roles in murder and other crimes “connected to rival tribal and militia groups,” British spokesman Maj. Peter Cripps said.

They include Maj. Jassim al-Daraji, assistant director of Basra’s criminal intelligence department, according to police spokesman Lt. Abbas al-Basri.

“Everyone in this part of Iraq has some allegiance or grouping with a tribe or some political group or militia,” Cripps told The Associated Press. “The point … is whether their allegiances are greater to the police service or their tribe or militia.”

He said British and Iraqi forces were “trying to root out those who follow militia-like allegiances.”

Shiite-dominated Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, is located 340 miles south of Baghdad, and has been far calmer than the turbulent Sunni Arab areas where most American troops are based. Still, 10 British soldiers have been killed since May in bombings and ambushes, some of them blamed on tribal and militia groups.

Trouble escalated last September in Basra when Iraqi police arrested two British Arabic-speaking commandos during a surveillance mission. Fearing the soldiers would be transferred to militia control, British troops stormed a police station and freed the captives.

Following the incident, the local Department of Internal Affairs was abolished because of militia ties. However, those dismissed in the reorganization “got jobs in another department within the Iraqi police services in Basra,” Cripps said.

In Iraqi parlance, “militia” refers to armed groups associated with political parties, tribal leaders or religious figures. Many are Shiite and are different from the Sunni Arab insurgent groups, such as the Islamic Army of Iraq or the al-Qaida faction of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi that seek to oust foreign troops and topple the U.S.-backed government.

Some are locally based and are little more than criminal gangs. Others play a role in the fight against Sunni insurgents. Some Shiite militias are believed behind killings of Sunni Arabs, often in reprisal for attacks by insurgents and religious extremists against Shiites.

Sunni Arab politicians blame Shiite militias for driving disaffected Sunnis into insurgent ranks, but U.S. efforts to persuade Shiites and Kurds to disband their militias has proven difficult in the face of the raging Sunni insurgency. Shiite and Kurdish parties dominate the current government.

The U.S. goal now is to try to integrate the militias into the police and army, where they can be controlled. However, the Bush administration acknowledged in a report to Congress last October that “the realities of Iraq’s political and security landscape” make it unlikely that goal will soon be achieved.

The militias number from a few hundred to tens of thousands of members.

Major militias include the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army – both Shiite – and the peshmerga, the Kurdish force believed to number up to 100,000. Peshmerga troops fought alongside the U.S. military in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and veterans of the Kurdish force are strongly represented in the new Iraqi army and police.

Kurdish leaders insist the peshmerga is not a militia but the legitimate security force of the three-province Kurdish Regional Government. Kurdish leaders stuck by that position in 2004 after interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi announced a deal to disband militias by January of this year.

Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr refused to accept the deal and disband his Mahdi Army, which battled U.S. forces in two uprisings. Despite an agreement last year to end the fighting, the Mahdi Army still operates in parts of Baghdad and Shiite areas of the south, including Basra.

Under U.S. pressure, the Badr Brigade changed its name to the Badr Organization for Reconstruction and Development in 2003 and maintains that it is no longer a militia. The group is linked to Iraq’s biggest Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq – senior partner in the Shiite coalition that won the biggest number of parliament seats in last month’s election.

Badr is also widely believed to have links to Iranian intelligence, and many of its key figures lived in Iran until the fall of Saddam Hussein in March 2003. Badr veterans are believed represented in ranks of the Interior Ministry special commando forces at the center of Sunni abuse charges. Interior Minister Bayan Jabr is a former Badr official.

However, those units, especially the feared Wolf Brigade, are considered among the toughest fighters among government forces in the battle against insurgents. The U.S. military announced this month that it would assign up to 3,000 U.S. and international personnel to such units, not only to accelerate their training but to curb their abuses.

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