The British Warrior Fighting Vehicle (Source: British Army)
Events in the oil-rich, southern Iraqi city of Basra have received relatively little attention in the American media. In part, this is because the province falls under the command of the British, whereas American forces are stationed in al-Anbar (USMC) and Baghdad (U.S. Army). The Christmas day raid of a rogue police unit heavily implicated in torture, executions, and criminal activity has focused attention back on Basra. The raid involved about a thousand British troops and members of the Iraqi Security Forces (not Iraqi Army). After successfully overcoming resistance, allied forces found 127 prisoners crowded into extremely cramped quarters. Many of the prisoners bore marks of torture, and British commanders claimed to posses intelligence that
they faced execution. The prisoners were transferred to another Iraqi detention facility. The police station, dubbed "Gestapo HQ" by some members of the British military, was demolished (see NYT and Times of London for more details).
The British operation was actually the second raid on the station. A year ago, the British bulldozed one of the prison's walls in order to rescue two special forces soldiers who had gone undercover to investigate the rogue unit. Then, as now, a number of Iraqi politicians and commanders condemned the raid. But this time, the British claim to have gotten clearance from the top.
The problems in Basra are somewhat different from those in the rest of the country. Because the town is almost entirely Shi'i, there is little sectarian fighting. Rather, it is the site of conflict among various criminal gangs allied with different Shi'a militias. It's unclear how much control the various leaders such as Moktada al-Sadr or Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim have over the local actors. Thus it is possible that even they believe that the criminals running things in Basra were out of control. The operation had backing from both Iraqi PM al-Maliqi as well as the governor of Basra, Mohammad Waeli.
It remains to be seen what the long-term effects of this operation will be. Her Majesty's Armed Forces certainly performed admirably. The British surrounded the target with overwhelming force - five tanks and 40 fighting vehicles, and there were apparently no British casualties. The raid might have taken the enemy by surprise. Instead of engaging the militias on patrols, the Brits gathered intelligence and then entered the city in a massive show of force to launch a pinpoint assault on a specific high-profile target. Symbolically, this is a blow to these local strongmen; if marketed correctly, it might enhance the legitimacy of British-backed big men against the centripetal forces terrorizing the local population with their gang wars.