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Violence after brit army assault freeing undercover brits { September 20 2005 }

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Bloody confrontation in Basra
A day of violence follows after two British soldiers are detained by Iraqi police, prompting army to assault station, free their comrades


September 20, 2005

WASHINGTON -- The British army battled Iraqi forces they trained themselves yesterday as anti-British violence broke out in Basra, the country's second-largest city.

Early in the day, two British soldiers in civilian clothes were detained by Iraqi police after they were involved in a shoot-out in which at least one Iraqi policeman was reported killed.

When negotiations over their release dragged on, the British surrounded the central police station with eight armored vehicles and smashed down the front door, rescuing their comrades, Iraqi officials said. Angry Iraqis set two of the vehicles on fire, forcing one British soldier to jump from the flames, news photographs showed. Three soldiers were hurt, Britain's Press Association reported.

The British Ministry of Defense confirmed last night that the two detained soldiers had been released but would not confirm or deny that troops had assaulted the police station.

In July, while taking a Newsday reporter on a tour of Basra jails and police stations, British officials touted the city's criminal justice system as an example of coalition forces' achievements in Iraq.

But yesterday's extensive violence showed how fragile the progress has been even in Basra, a majority-Shia city that suffered particularly severe repression under Saddam Hussein.

Basra had been tense since Sunday, when British forces arrested two Shia leaders of the Mahdi Army, the private militia of Muqtada al-Sadr, an anti-Western cleric from a famous Iraqi family. The two were said to be suspected in recent attacks on British soldiers.

The police forces created and trained by the British are now so little trusted in Basra that British troops have been told not to submit to Iraqi police checkpoints. The police have been heavily infiltrated by the Shia militias including the Mahdi Army.

As a further indication of Basra's problems, an Iraqi journalist, Fakher Haider, was found dead yesterday after being "arrested" at his home by armed men who said they were police. Haider worked for Western news organizations, including The New York Times. Journalists, including Steven Vincent of New York, have been favorite targets of Basra's Shia militias.

The Shia violence in the south, coupled with the recent surge in Sunni insurgent attacks in and around Baghdad, made it appear that coalition forces were losing, not gaining ground.

There have been reports in recent months that al-Sadr was trying to form an alliance with non-Iraqi Sunni Arab militants. While Sunni and Shia religious extremists disdain each others' branch of Islam, they share a hatred for the West.

Yesterday, the most-wanted terrorist leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, issued a statement saying he would not attack al-Sadr's forces, raising the prospect of Sunni-Shia cooperation on Western attacks.

This story was supplemented with wire service reports.

Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.

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Violence after brit army assault freeing undercover brits { September 20 2005 }

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