'People here see the Iraq government has no authority'

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The Independent Online

The Iraqi official was visibly flustered and embarrassed when questioned in Baghdad about the storming of the police station in Basra by British troops.

"It is a very unfortunate development that the British forces should try to release their soldiers the way it happened," Haydar al-Abadi, the Prime Minister's press secretary, told The Independent.

He defended the way the local police had acted. He said: "For two guys to collect information in civilian clothes, in the current tense security situation, I believe that the reaction of the Iraqi security is totally understandable."

It was not a good day for the Iraqi government. It wanted to publicise the capture of the northern city of Tal Afar by the Iraqi army backed by US forces at the weekend. Instead it had to answer question after question about why Iraqi sovereignty had been treated with such contempt at the other end of the country.

At the weekend an Iraqi minister said to me in frustration: "We must try to eliminate the grey areas where our authority conflicts with the coalition. We must try to reach some understanding about what to do when our jurisdictions clash."

Ordinary Iraqis were drawing their own conclusion about what had happened in Basra. Abdul Hamid, a goldsmith, said over the phone from the city: "People here have seen that our government has no authority in Iraq. The British did not respect them when they smashed into the jail, so why should we respect our own leaders?"

This is not entirely surprising. Iraqis, both Sunni and Shia, have always been dubious about how much real sovereignty resided with their government, despite the heavily publicised handover of power to an Iraqi interim government by the US and Britain in June 2004.

Although the armed uprising against the occupation is currently confined to the five million Sunni Arabs, it is a mistake to think that the 15 to 16 million Shia Iraqis are enamoured of the presence of foreign troops. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, their most influential leader, has refused since the invasion to meet American and British officials in Iraq. He has also argued consistently that the Shia should exercise their power through elections and not through armed strength. Again and again Shia leaders say they made a mistake in 1920 by heading the rebellion against the British occupation and opening the way for the Sunni Arabs, predominant in Baghdad during the Ottoman Empire, to stay in power. Since the summer of 2003, when six British military police were killed in a police station at Majar al-Kabir, north of Basra, the British Army has tried hard to avoid friction with Iraqis in the south. The lesson seemed to have been learnt that searching for weapons or trying to exert full control of southern Iraq would provoke an angry reaction.

The religious parties and their militias largely took over. There is the Badr Organisation (the renamed Badr Brigade), which is the military wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), and the Army of Mehdi of Muqtada Sadr. British commentators were yesterday muttering suspiciously about these militias and their supposed links with Iran.

The impression is that these are isolated groups. Brigadier John Lorrimer, commander of the 12th Mechanised Brigade, claimed that "this was a small, unrepresentative crowd of about 200 to 300 in a city of 1.5 million". Just how the brigadier was able to determine that the crowd was acting contrary to local public opinion he did not explain. On the contrary, Sciri was highly successful in the elections in January. Sadr, while ambivalent about the poll, is also well represented in the interim National Assembly. The militia takeover of the local police force reflects their real political strength.

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