Basra in 2006: The height of the insurgency

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The Independent Online

Three years after British soldiers had been welcomed as the saviours of Basra, the city was in the grip of a violent insurgency and relations between the 8,000-odd garrison and dominant Shia population had sunk to an all-time low.

Each day brought fresh reports of attacks on British army patrols, sectarian clashes, kidnappings and asassinations.

By May 2006 the situation had become so desperate that the Iraqi government declared a state of emerency in the city, prompting Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to pledge to end the insurgency once and for all.

On 27 September 2006 British commanders struck back in a military-led operation to tackle all groups whose activities posed a threat to the city's security. Operation Sinbad was to be a last dice throw to hand security back to a trained and discplined police force and allow British forces to pull out of Basra to new headquarters at the airport.

Across the city hundreds of soldiers embarked on a series of raids against the homes of suspected members of the militias and criminal gangs.

In one of these operations a unit from the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment was sent to a residential district of Al-Qibla a few miles outside Basra. Exactly what the soldiers’ orders were is not clear. But it seems that the unit arrived in the early hours of the morning of 15 November at the home of Sabiha Khudur Talib when the family was still asleep. Not in dispute is that shortly after the soldiers’ arrival, shots were fired and Mrs Talib’s son was killed. According to the family the shooting lasted 20 minutes before the soldiers entered the small two-roomed property. A military report of the incident says that Mrs Talib was injured in the crossfire and taken to a hospital where she was pronounced dead. But her other son says that he saw his mother being led away, uninjured, to an armoured vehicle.

In his witness statement Gatii Karim Al-Maliki says he remembers hearing shouts in English from outside the house and realised the home was being attacked by British soldiers.

"My mother grabbed hold of me and pulled me into a corner where she cuddled me close. As the shots seemed to come from all angles into the room and we were both still very exposed it was a miracle we were not shot. I did not dare move and recall that my mother began to pray."

He adds: "After what seemed like 20 minutes the firing stopped and British soldiers entered the house. One soldier pointed a laser beam at me and I immediately threw up my hands so he did not shoot me. A soldier then grabbed me by my collar, lifted me up and then threw me face down onto the floor. The soldiers had flashlights with them and at this point I saw my brother Karim sitting against the wall. He was still and I saw his blood all around. It was obvious he was dead."

Says Mr Al-Maliki: "My mother began shouting and pleading with the soldiers and she was calling out mine and Karim’s names. Although the calls pained me at least I knew that she was alive."

Later he describes the soldiers leading his mother out of the house. "As I was kneeling on the ground I heard my mother shouting for me and Karim. I looked up and saw my mother being led roughly, only a couple of metres in front of me by approximately four of five soldiers. I shouted to her. I could see that my mother was trying to hold a blanket around her legs. I could see her body and I could see no signs of injury. I could not believe they were treating my old mother in this way."

Mr Al-Maliki says the soldiers then led his mother to a military vehicle: "I was very worried about her, but could see that she was at least uninjured. I then saw a soldier hit her on her back with the butt of a rifle. The soldiers pulled the blanket off her legs, wrapped this around her and shoved her into the vehicle. I had a clear view of this from where I was kneeling.”

Mr Al-Maliki claims he was beaten by the soldiers in a Land Rover which took him to an Army base in Basra. There he was interrogated and accused of being an insurgent. He was questioned about rocket attacks which had been launched from the Al-Qibla area. But during the second interrogation a British officer apologised to him and issued him with a $5 note. He was later driven outside the British base, from where he hired a taxi home. He had been detained for 10 hours.

Mr Al-Malaki returned home to a crowd of journalists in his house. “I forced my way past the people in the house and went to the room where Karim had been killed in. There was still blood over the floor. I looked at the area where my mother and I had been cowering, and there was no blood there... The house was badly damaged... My uncles had taken my brother to bury him. I was extremely upset by this. I was weeping.”

His relatives tried to spare him the true fate of his mother by telling him that she was ill in hospital. But he later found out that the family had buried his mother as well.

“I believe my mother was tortured and killed by British soldiers. Before they arrested her, she was fine. Now she was dead. When I found out what had happened to my mother I was inconsolable and cried uncontrollably.”