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BRITISH UNDERCOVER OPERATIVES IN IRAQ
Zarqawi Eat Your Heart Out
Basra is relatively stable compared to central Iraq where violence involving insurgents, civilians and coalition forces is a daily routine. The city has rarely been a site of clashes between insurgents and coalition troops, nor is it a victim of regular terrorist attacks. This week, however, things changed, but not thanks to Zarqawi and his al-Qaeda ilk.
On Monday, two British soldiers were arrested and detained by Iraqi police in Basra. Within a matter of hours, the British military responded with overwhelming force, despite subsequent denials by the Ministry of Defence, which insisted that the two men had been retrieved solely through "negotiations."
British military officials, including Brigadier John Lorimer, told BBC News (9/20/05) that the British Army had stormed an Iraqi police station to locate the detainees. Ministry of Defence sources confirmed that "British vehicles" had attempted to "maintain a cordon" outside the police station.
After British Army tanks "flattened the wall" of the station, UK troops "broke into the police station to confirm the men were not there" and then "staged a rescue from a house in Basra", according a commanding officer familiar with the operation. Both men, British defence sources told the BBC's Richard Galpin in Baghdad, were "members of the SAS elite special forces." After their arrest, the soldiers were over to the local militia.
What had prompted this bizarre turn of events? Why had the Iraqi police forces, which normally work in close cooperation with coalition military forces, arrested two British SAS soldiers, and then handed them over to the local militia? A review of the initial on-the-ground reports leads to a clearer picture.
Fancy Dress and Big Guns Don't Mix
According to the BBC's Galpin, reporting for BBC Radio 4 (9/20/05, 18 hrs news script), Iraqi police sources in Basra told the BBC the "two British men were arrested after failing to stop at a checkpoint. There was an exchange of gunfire. The men were wearing traditional Arab clothing, and when the police eventually stopped them, they said they found explosives and weapons in their car…It's widely believed the two British servicemen were operating undercover."
Undercover? Dressed as Arabs? What were they trying to do that had caught the attention of their colleagues, the Iraqi police?
According to the Washington Post (9/20/05), "Iraqi security officials on Monday variously accused the two Britons they detained of shooting at Iraqi forces or trying to plant explosives." Reuters (9/19/05) cited police, local officials and other witnesses who confirmed that "the two undercover soldiers were arrested after opening fire on Iraqi police who approached them." Officials said that "the men were wearing traditional Arab headscarves and sitting in an unmarked car."
According to Mohammed al-Abadi, an official in the Basra governorate, “A policeman approached them and then one of these guys fired at him. Then the police managed to capture them.