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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 March 2007, 17:22 GMT
Security struggle in Iraq's south
By Paul Wood
BBC News defence correspondent, Dhi Qhar

Dhi Qar, in the British sector, was among the first Iraqi provinces to assume control of its own security. Its police chief tells the BBC one third of his officers are linked to illegal militias.

British troops on patrol in Iraq
The British want Dhi Qar to be a model for change in Basra

"You must get away from Basra," said the British army. "The view you get there is too negative. We'll take you to Muthana or Dhi Qar - those are the real success stories."

Dhi Qar and its neighbour Muthana were the first two provinces to get control of their own security from the British, last year. They are held up as a model of how things should work in Basra.

After arriving at the main base in Dhi Qar, Col Ed Brown - of the newly-formed Rifles Regiment - took us to the police headquarters in Dhi Qar's capital, Nasiriyah.

Once at the police station, senior officers boasted of the low murder rate - less than 30 a month and mostly tribal killings. They looked forward to new business investment in the province, even tourists.

Sons killed

This was the good news story in Dhi Qar the Army was so anxious for us to see. But after listening to half an hour of this, Brig Gen Ghalib al Jaza'aere could contain himself no longer.

The militias, they are all ex-criminals, now you will find that these people are carrying out torture exactly as Saddam used to do
Brig Gen Ghalib al Jaza'aere

A gaunt figure, once imprisoned under Saddam, the general is now the Ministry of Interior official in overall charge of Dhi Qar and Muthana.

More recently, two of his sons were killed by the militias. He was in no mood for public relations.

At 0430 that morning, he said, the Mehdi militia had attacked the main police station in neighbouring Muthana with rocket-propelled grenades.

Minutes earlier, those guarding the station had mysteriously disappeared. Some police officers had apparently colluded in the attack on their own station.

Political protection

The police chief for Dhi Qar, Gen Abdul Hussein Al Saffe, was also in the room. I asked him how many of his own men he couldn't trust because they were linked to the illegal militias.

"One third," he said, adding that they had political protection and he could not sack them.

The other general - the one who has lost two sons - was now angrily gesticulating. They had been forced, for tribal or political reasons, to hire 300 to 400 officers who were completely illiterate, he said.

"In Saddam's time, you might have to take a corporal or a sergeant who couldn't read or write if they had connections," he said. "But now it is colonels, even a brigadier, and there is nothing we can do."

The stories came pouring out.

A drug smuggler captured and sent to Baghdad but taken to a mental hospital for "treatment" lasting a couple of days then freed; a double murderer sentenced to death then mysteriously allowed out of jail; a police officer caught smuggling weapons to be used against British troops.

They sacked that officer, they said, but he was reinstated and even promoted by Baghdad.

Iraqi problems

All of this is a reflection of the fact that the Iraqi government is kept in power by political parties who each have a paramilitary wing.

Things are imperfect but we make a huge mistake... if we try and turn this into Surrey
Col Ed Brown

A more immediate problem for these two senior officers is that, since January, they have received none of their budget from Baghdad.

Wages are paid, but there is no money for fuel, vehicles, equipment or weapons.

Col Brown told me afterwards: "What we must do as coalition forces is to give as much support as we can without actually taking back the responsibility for security because it is very clearly theirs."

He went on: "Things are imperfect but we make a huge mistake, and we will move down a road that will end in real failure, if we try and turn this into Surrey. It isn't.

"There is a level of violence here - but that is life in Iraq. It's been like this for thousands of years. It's not going to change."

The hope now of the British high command, according to one senior officer, is to "tip-toe away from southern Iraq" leaving behind some kind of security structure which will survive.

British officers recognise that militia infiltration, torture in police stations, and illiterate but untouchable officers are all serious problems.

But these are now viewed as Iraqi problems, for the Iraqis alone to solve.

A British colonel on the security situation in southern Iraq

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