by Stephen Grey in Basra (first published in Sunday Times, London)

A BRITISH Army operation to purge an Iraqi police unit blamed for torture, murders and attacks on troops is being opposed by senior politicians in the southern city of Basra.

British commanders say they have repeatedly clashed with Mohammed al-Waili, the provincial governor, and other elected leaders during a crackdown on the local police’s Department for Internal Affairs (DIA). Al-Waili threatened last week to break off relations with the British after troops arrested two senior policemen.

The row dates back to last September when two SAS soldiers became involved in a gunfight and were held at Jamiat police station, which served as DIA headquarters.Whitehall sources said the soldiers had been following a senior member of the DIA when they were spotted.

Al-Waili, who belongs to a Shi’ite group called the Islamic Virtue party, angered the army by refusing to call for the soldiers’ release.The DIA has been blamed not only for killing and torturing prisoners, but also for effectively operating a death squad whose victims may have included Steven Vincent, an American journalist who was killed last August.

DIA members are alleged to have close links to Iranian-backed insurgents who have been planting roadside bombs against British troops.

“It’s fair to describe the DIA as one of our main enemies in Iraq,” said a British defence source who has recently returned from visiting Basra. “They are not just thugs but murderers and terrorists – with the blood of our soldiers and innocent civilians on their hands.”

The Sunday Times disclosed in February 2004 that the station in Jamiat had become a focal point for the most corrupt elements of Basra’s new British-trained police forces. A police commander admitted then that recruits were drawn from the Iranian-backed Badr Brigade and the militia of the radical cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr.

Last year the British Army appealed to the Iraqi government to disband the DIA and order the arrest of its most corrupt commanders. But it became increasingly clear that whether because of complicity or fear, the politicians were reluctant to act.

Three months ago, after pressure from the British embassy in Baghdad, the Iraqi interior ministry finally gave orders for the DIA to be shut down. A paramilitary police unit was sent to its headquarters on November 20 to disperse its officers. Insurgents struck hard at the British that day. Sergeant John Jones was killed by a bomb planted close to a police station. Al-Waili was reported to have travelled to Baghdad to lobby against the order to close the DIA.

The situation in Basra has been complicated by allegations that senior politicians have been making fortunes through involvement in oil smuggling and links to armed militias.

Brigadier Patrick Marriott, commander of the 4,000-strong force from the 7th Armoured Brigade (the Desert Rats), was philosophical about the challenges. “I read a short while ago in a very good ‘lessons learnt’ pamphlet produced by the Americans that most successful insurgencies, when dealt with in the 20th century, took about nine years and those that failed took 13 years,” he said. Asked how long this one would take, he replied: “I don’t know. The jury’s out.”

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