British troops demolish Iraqi police station

More than 1,000 British troops carried out a dawn raid on a police station in the southern Iraqi city of Basra after receiving intelligence that dozens of prisoners were being tortured and faced imminent execution.

In the latest violent episode in a city increasingly riven by conflict, the troops, supported by helicopters and Iraqi forces, killed seven gunmen and demolished Jamiat police station, the headquarters of the serious crimes unit. Yesterday's attack, described by Major Charlie Burbridge as a "very significant move", was the climax of a British operation against the unit which had seen the arrests last week of several senior members.

The raid also highlighted the parlous state of the increasingly beleaguered Iraqi police force. Despite the British Ministry of Defence's insistence that Britain's exit strategy from Iraq relies upon building a strong Iraqi police and army, senior officers have begun in recent months to admit that there is a "small rotten core" within the Basra police. This comes as no surprise to locals, who have long claimed that the force is heavily infiltrated by insurgents and is responsible for the vast majority of murders in Iraq's second city.

Sunni leaders have said repeatedly that many police forces are made up of Shia militias who turn a blind eye to the "death squads" operating with grim efficiency around the country.

Last month, police commandos from the Shia-controlled Interior Ministry kidnapped 150 people from the Sunni-run Higher Education Ministry in central Baghdad. Subsequently, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, said: "They say the killings and kidnappings are being carried out by men in police uniforms and with police vehicles, but everybody in Baghdad knows the killers and kidnappers are real policemen."

The Baker-Hamilton report released by the Iraq Study Group earlier this month was also heavily critical of the Iraqi police force, which, it said, "has neither the training nor legal authority to conduct criminal investigations, nor the firepower to take on organised crime, insurgents, or militias ... Iraqi police cannot control crime, and they routinely engage in sectarian violence, including the unnecessary detention, torture, and targeted execution of Sunni Arab civilians."

The damning verdict was a blow to the Bush administration; the US has claimed that its timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq is dependent on recruiting and training Iraqi security services - a process that has been long and troubled.

For many young Iraqi men, joining the police is one of few sources of employment. But, as violence escalates and insurgent infiltration of units continues, the men face grave risks.

The Interior Minister, Jawad Bolani, revealed on Sunday that 12,000 Iraqi police officers have died in the line of duty since the US-led invasion in 2003 - one death for every 16 of the 190,000 officers in the country.

The Christmas Day operation against Jamiat police station had been planned since July but intelligence that indicated an imminent threat to prisoners forced British military leaders to act more quickly. After British and Iraqi troops surrounded the building after midnight, prisoners were found crowded into a cell, living in "appalling conditions", British forces said. Many had crushed feet or hands and gunshot wounds to the knee, apparently signs of torture. They were given medical assessments and transferred to another police station.

British officials said the Shia Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and the Basra governor, Mohammed Waili, had approved the dissolution of the Jamiat unit, but it was unclear if they had endorsed yesterday's raid.

* In Baghdad yesterday 10 civilians were killed and at least 11 others injured in a car bombing at a Shia shopping area. In a separate incident in the capital, a suicide bomber killed at least two and injured about 20 others on a minibus.

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