Graphic images on the internet may turn Basra into a bloody Baghdad

By Kim Sengupta and Hassan al-Hakim in Basra

20 January 2005


No one was dealing with their e-mails at the Minaar internet café in Basra yesterday. They were watching photographs of fellow Iraqis allegedly being abused and sexually humiliated by British troops.

Here, in the the capital of British-controlled Shia south, is where the effect of the shocking images will cause the most damage and may lead to lethal repercussions. Access to the internet has given access to graphic examples of degrading treatment said to have been meted out by British troops to people they had supposedly "liberated" a few months before.

"This is bad, and it makes me angry to see this," said Ahmed Tawfiq, a 22-year-old student. "These men are being treated like dogs. These are grown men with families who are being so badly treated. What would happen in England if they behaved like this to- wards prisoners?"

British forces have had a relatively easier time in the Shia belt than the US forces facing the full ferocity of the Sunni insurgency in central Iraq.

Overall, the Shias have been content to keep their powder dry watching the Sunnis batter themselves against the US military might, assured in the knowledge that an inbuilt demographic majority, as well as the threatened Sunni boycott of the forthcoming elections, will hand them the reins of power.

But the pictures of the alleged mistreatment against Shia prisoners, will, it is feared, lead to a backlash against British soldiers in what is already a very tense time before the elections on 30 January. Abbas Abdullah Qais, 44, a schoolteacher using the café with peeling yellow walls in central Basra in his lunch hour, had little doubt about the damage of the fallout from the court martial in Osnabrück.

"People are already fed up about lack of progress since the war, and also because we have foreign troops here for so long" he said. "This will just make them more upset.

"If this happened almost two years ago why has it taken so long for this to come out? It is a very bad time for this to happen. We are all very nervous about what is going to happen at the elections. There will be a lot of trouble and people will use these pictures."

But his friend, Said Ibrahim, cautioned against over-reaction. "Do not forget what used to happen under Saddam," he said. "It was much, much worse.

"And we would not have seen what had happened. Then there was only place in Basra, the Ministry of Education, where people could use the internet. And there the officials checked everything we did."

Samira Rashid Ali, out shopping for food with her three-year-old son in a nearby souk, said: "I am not surprised. I have heard stories of British soldiers behaving badly towards people. But the [Iraqi] police are also bad. We do not expect anything else."

Several people said they were surprised by the extent of the punishment that seemed to be inflicted on the prisoners. "I heard they were just stealing," said Ahmed Naif, a biology student. "But the way they were treated it was as if they were really terrorists."