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Last Updated: Sunday, 16 October 2005, 18:02 GMT 19:02 UK
Shia militants gaining strength in Basra

By Paul Wood
BBC defence correspondent, southern Iraq

Shia militia members in Basra
Shia militias have increasing influence in Basra
Voting on the new constitution was a joyous affair for Iraq's Shias.

It was only the second time in decades they have been able to cast a democratic ballot, following January's election.

In the queues outside polling stations, people were clear about what they thought a "Yes" vote would mean.

"We want to live in an Islamic republic," said one woman dressed in the traditional black abaya.

"That is our religion, so we must have a president who is Islamic too."

The prospect of such an outcome from Iraq's new democratic process causes dread in London and Washington.

But whatever happens nationally, Shia militias - many backed by Iran - are already imposing their own strict version of Islamic Sharia law on the streets of Basra, in southern Iraq.

Students attacked

Local people say three female students at Basra University have been killed for failing to cover themselves in the black abaya and hijab.

This follows a notorious incident in March when gunmen attacked students in a park.

As the police stood by, the gunmen ripped the blouse from one woman, leaving her half-naked. Two male students who went to help her were shot.

The militia filmed all this, concentrating on the woman's humiliation; she was later said to have committed suicide.

The gunmen, loyal to a radical Shia cleric, distributed a CD of the footage in Basra.

It was a warning to others not to allow men and women to mix in public.

Iraqi women in Basra
Women have complained of human rights abuses
"The militia were hitting us again and again with iron bars and rifle butts," said one of the students.

"I have left Basra with my family now because the militias control all aspects of our lives, because of the killing and the kidnapping."

He went on: "The miserable thing is that the British forces were just watching all this. They let the militia destroy the rule of law here."

Coalition failing

This student must remain anonymous to protect relatives still in Basra. But he is not the only one accusing the coalition of failing the people it is supposed to be helping.

Inside the heavily fortified British embassy in Basra, diplomats had gathered a small group of Western-leaning, reform minded, middle class Iraqis.

These were Britain's friends in Basra but they could hardly contain their bitterness.

"The British Army handed the city to the Islamist groups as a gift," one human rights campaigner said.

"People are even saying bring the Americans here. Some people actually want the Americans instead."

One of the few who does not mind being named, Professor Adel al-Thamary of Basra University, told me:

"All in all, our life is worse than when we used to live under Saddam because now we are under fire. Now we can be killed any time on the streets."

Scaled down

The British Army's response is that what happens on the campus of Basra University is a matter for the Iraqi authorities.

"We can't just go in mob-handed," one British officer said. "We're supposed to be handing the country back to the Iraqis."

The Iraqi liberals we met at the embassy accepted that they were pleading for the coalition's help because their elected politicians had failed them.

"Our democracy is not a British democracy," one of them said.

"We vote but the outcome is not always good. Here the Islamist parties control the council."

UK troops in Basra
British troops now often patrol in helicopters
The British army has scaled down its patrols in Basra. Convoys into Basra have been cut and journeys are undertaken by helicopter if at all possible.

The reason is a new, more lethal kind of roadside bomb which has killed eight British soldiers in the past two months.

The bombs have shaped charges that can punch through an armoured vehicle. The British government believes Iran is supporting the bombing campaign.

"We are 100% certain there's a connection with Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah in the technology, in the training, and in the route with which it is entering the country," one source said.

Iranian connection

Defence sources also make another specific and damning allegation - that the original expertise in how to make these bombs comes from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

That implicates the Iranian government and not just rogue elements of the security services.

Religious rule would cast Iraq into problems with a beginning but no end
Iyad Allawi
Former Iraqi prime minister
Tehran denies the allegations but British intelligence sources believe specialist bomb makers are being trained in Lebanon and Iran, then returned to southern Iraq to instruct others.

Worryingly, the know-how is spreading, with other militant groups now able to make the bombs.

"It is proliferating," our source said. "One man can train 10 others."

Basra police

British diplomats say Tehran is doing this in order to tie down the coalition in southern Iraq, and prevent a concerted effort to stop the Iranians developing nuclear weapons.

"A complete collapse in Iraq is not in the Iranians interests," one official said, "but they want to keep us busy here."

It was while trying to interrupt the flow of men and arms from Iran that the two SAS men were detained last month, to be rescued later from a police station.

The links between the Iranian backed militants and some elements in the police seemed to be confirmed last week when British troops raided a house in Basra.

They netted 12 suspects, including three police officers. This is an effort the British Army is having to carry out on its own, just as it was left to deal alone with the unrest on Basra's streets a month ago.

This is disappointing for the British as the coalition has spent much time and money on training the Iraqi security forces.

One coalition officer outlined the extent of British support for the local police.

The donations, he said, included 24,000 uniforms and flak jackets, 16,000 pistols, 12,000 assault rifles, 6,000 radios, and 1,400 vehicles, including armoured cars.

I asked an Iraqi police commander in Basra why, given all this help, not a single member of the Iraqi security forces had come to the aid of the British Army during the recent troubles.

He smiled apologetically and turned his palms outwards, saying he didn't know the details of the incident.

"It's not surprising," said the army captain with me. "He knows we'll be gone eventually and we won't be able to help them when that happens."

Political process

The pessimists warn that Iraq's new constitution will only make a civil war between Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish communities more likely.

The UK hopes success in this new political process will create the conditions for a withdrawal of its troops.

But one risk is that even if a stable government is produced in Baghdad, international forces will withdraw from the south leaving behind an autonomous statelet run by militants linked to Iran.

An official in neighbouring Saudi Arabia said: "The constitution will give Iranians or pro-Iranian Iraqis an open hand in seven provinces in the south, to bring them together into an autonomy which will create a Shia republic."

And Iraq's former prime minister, the secular Shia Iyad Allawi, told Reuters: "Religious rule would cast Iraq into problems with a beginning but no end. It will not stop at the borders of Iraq. It will spread. The battles and problems and secret movements and chaos would prevail in the entire region."

The British Army mounted Operation Bugle on Saturday, to provide an outer cordon of security for the refereundum to take place.

In Basra, this meant they kept at least a mile away from the nearest polling station.

The coalition did not want even the impression that it was interfering in the vote.

But it was also a reflection of the tensions between the British Army and a police force they have largely trained and equipped.

Through binoculars, the British soldiers watched the voting.

The coalition can do little more than wait and watch a democratic process which could deliver it from Iraq, or which could only deepen the morass.



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