Reuters: British forces killed seven gunmen and blew up the headquarters of the police serious crimes unit in southern Basra on Monday in a raid to rescue prisoners who were about to be killed, the British military said. By Aref Mohammed
BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) – British forces killed seven gunmen and blew up the headquarters of the police serious crimes unit in southern Basra on Monday in a raid to rescue prisoners who were about to be killed, the British military said.
Calling the police station a center of “criminal enterprise” and a symbol of oppression for the city’s residents, the military said the building was demolished with explosives after a pre-dawn assault by around 1,000 troops backed by tanks.
Many of its 127 prisoners, all suspected criminals, were found crowded into a small cell, living in “appalling conditions,” the military said. A number had crushed feet or hands and gunshot wounds to the knee, apparent signs of torture.
British military spokesman Captain Tane Dunlop said the unit had been taking the law into its own hands. “Crimes unit? That’s pretty much what it does, rather than prevent,” he told Reuters.
Shi’ite militias vying for control of the oil-rich city are suspected of infiltrating police in Basra. Washington accuses Shi’ite Iran of backing Shi’ite militias in a spiraling conflict with minority Sunnis that threatens all-out civil war.
Iraq’s Kurdish president Jalal Talabani on Monday protested the arrest by U.S. forces of two Iranian diplomats who U.S. officials say were seized in raids against Iranians suspected of planning attacks on security forces.
“The president is unhappy. The diplomats came to Iraq at the invitation of the president,” Talabani’s media adviser, Hiwa Othman, told Reuters.
In Tehran, the Foreign Ministry said the “move is not compatible with any international regulations and will provoke unpleasant repercussions.”
The State Department said in a statement that the Iranian diplomats were picked up along with a number of individuals suspected of planning attacks.
It said those with diplomatic immunity were handed over to the Iraqi government “which in turn turned them over to the Iranian government. The remaining group of individuals remain in custody for further questioning…”
U.S. and Iraqi officials have long accused Iran of interfering in Iraq’s affairs and fuelling sectarian conflict. In the single worst attack on Monday, a car bomb in a mainly Shi’ite district of the Iraqi capital killed 10 people.
Pictures released by the British Ministry of Defense after the Basra raid showed the police unit’s two-storey headquarters erupting in a cloud of debris and dust in an explosion that reduced it to rubble.
An armored British force of Challenger tanks and Warrior fighting vehicles came under rocket-propelled grenade and machinegun fire from alleyways as it approached the station, said Major Charlie Burbridge, another British spokesman.
The force returned fire with heavy machineguns, killing seven gunmen, Burbridge said.
British forces seized senior members of the rogue unit last week. It has long been accused of involvement in murders, attacks on U.S.-led forces and kidnappings in the city.
“The unit, some 400-strong, was known to have been heavily infiltrated by anti-coalition elements,” the British military said in a statement.
The military had planned to disband the unit but decided to act on Monday after learning that some of the prisoners in the police station were about to be killed, Burbridge said.
British officials said Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Basra governor Mohammed Waili had approved the dissolution of the unit, but it was unclear whether they had endorsed Monday’s operation.
Basra’s police chief, Brigadier Mohammed al-Musawi, accused the British of trying to “stir up trouble” and said he had not been told of the raid beforehand. The Iraqi Defense Ministry, however, said in Baghdad it had consented to the operation.
Britain has around 7,300 troops in southern Iraq, mostly stationed in and around Basra and hopes to hand over control of the province to Iraqi authorities between April and June 2007.
Separately, the U.S. military said three U.S. soldiers had been killed, one by a roadside bomb which exploded near a mounted patrol in Baghdad on Monday, and two in combat in Anbar provice on Sunday.
The deaths brought the U.S. death toll in Iraq to 2,967.
President Bush is expected to announce in January a new strategy to curb violence in Iraq and allow the eventual withdrawal of some 135,000 U.S. troops. The Pentagon says violence in Iraq is now at an all-time high.
(Additional reporting by Mussab Al-Khairalla and Ross Colvin in Baghdad and Alireza Ronaghi in Tehran)