Until recently the violence that has come to characterise much of Iraq has largely been confined to north and central regions of the country, leaving British occupied southern Iraqi relatively peaceful. But now that might be changing.
Last week a bomb exploded outside a restaurant in Basra that was popular with Iraqi security forces. It was the third attack in as many days in the southern city and left 16 dead.
The situation deteriorated still further today when a British soldier in Basra shot and killed an Iraqi policeman.
In an operation reminiscent of Israeli tactics in the occupied territories, two British soldiers were driving a civilian car disguised as Iraqis wearing traditional Arab headdresses.
When Iraqi police became suspicious, an Iraqi policeman approached the car but as he did so one of the occupants opened fire, killing him. After a further exchange of fire the Iraqis managed to overpower the two soldiers who were held in a Basra police station, where they were questioned over the shooting, which the Iraqi authorities have described as “murder”.
The shooting triggered further unrest and rioting in which two British Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC’s) were burnt out. As angry crowds attacked British APC’s with petrol bombs and rocks in Basra after Iraqi authorities detained the two British undercover soldiers.
While British diplomats tried to resolve the crisis, British troops and armoured vehicles surrounded the police station where the two were held.
Whatever happens next in Basra, the shooting marks a serious deterioration in the situation in Iraq. Hitherto, dealings between the Iraqi authorities and Coalition forces had been relatively smooth if at times a little strained. However, the shooting could signal a dramatic turning point as relations between Coaliton forces and civil authorites breakdown into open hostility.
And that could have serious consequences in a country where the vast majority see Coalition forces, not as liberators, but as an army of occupation working on behalf of Israel.
British tanks crash through Basra jail walls, freeing captured Britons
September 19, 2005 21.25 GMT
The Canadian Press reports that British tanks broke down the walls of the central jail in the southern city of Basra late Monday and freed two Britons, allegedly undercover commandos, who had been arrested on charges of murdering two Iraqi policemen.
Witnesses said about 150 Iraqi prisoners fled the jail as well.
An Iraqi official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said half a dozen tanks had broken down the walls of the jail and troops had then stormed in to free the two British soldiers. The governor of Basra confirmed that the jail had been broken into calling it a “barbaric aggression”.
At a recent military briefing in Basra, an AFP correspondent was told British soldiers had been ordered not to stop at Iraqi police checkpoints because of fear that rebels could be posing as Iraqi police.