Deal with Shia prisoner left Basra at mercy of gangs, colonel admits

British commanders in Iraq made an astonishing secret deal with a Shia prisoner to withdraw from Basra which left the city at the mercy of criminal gangs, one of the UK's senior military officers serving in Iraq has said.

Colonel Richard Iron said the "understandable but inexcusable" deal was one of several "terrible mistakes" the British have made during their occupation of the south of the country.

In an exclusive interview with The Independent on Sunday, Col Iron, who leads the teams mentoring the Iraqi army in central Basra, said the deal had included the release of 120 prisoners and had the effect of leaving the city in a lawless state.

"We have made some terrible mistakes in Iraq and it is only by talking about them that we will learn from them," said Col Iron, an expert on anti-insurgency. "Last autumn we made a mistake which was understandable but not excusable. A Shia prisoner, Ahmed al-Fartusi, said he could put a stop to the killings. We released 120 of their prisoners and withdrew out of town, but when we moved out, lawlessness took over. As 90 per cent of the attacks were against us, we thought if we moved out we would remove the source of the problem. But actually the Jaish al-Mahdi [the Mahdi army, known to British troops as the Jam] had been fighting us because we were the only obstacle to their total control."

Col Iron, a veteran of Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Kosovo, added that Basra's problems had not been properly understood.

"We have treated Basra more like Palermo than Beirut," he said, "as if the problems were more about a few criminal tribes and families than religious groups. Baghdad thought Basra was easy to solve and didn't fully understand the extent of the problem, plus the Americans, with their obligations in Mosul and elsewhere, believed Basra could look after itself. It was compounded by having little guidance from above as to whether we were right to accept the deal."

One seasoned, UK-based Iraq-watcher added: "There was a sense that no one was making policy in London."

British troops withdrew from central Basra last August and September, handing over the city to Iraqi police and soldiers. At the time witnesses claimed that their former base was immediately taken over by the Jam, the militia led by Muqtada al-Sadr.

The situation altered in late March with the so-called Charge of the Knights, when 15,000 Iraqi troops, backed by the British and Americans, swept into Shia militia strongholds and routed them. Now the emphasis is on counter-insurgency, and the violence has dropped markedly. Around 4,000 British troops remain in the country.

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