Britain, Iran playing with Iraqi Shi'ite fire
The British media, following subtle prompts by the British security establishment, has tended to apportion some of the blame for the recent upsurge in violence - particularly the increasingly sophisticated nature of roadside bombings - on Iran. This is, at best, misleading. The events in southern Iraq are essentially driven by internal Iraqi dynamics, and British high-handedness in dealing with Iraqi Shi'ites is not helping matters.
The British in Iraq
The British military has been careful to cultivate a benign image around its substantial presence in the southern regions of Iraq. Retired military officers, who act as unofficial public relations agents of the United Kingdom military, regularly appear in the media and often contrast the behavior of British forces to the more trigger-happy Americans, and swiftly conclude that the British - on account of their experience in Northern Ireland and elsewhere - are simply better at this type of thing than their American cousins.
This is, at best, a half-truth. While there is no denying the professionalism and historical experience of the British military, they have been guilty of serious crimes and abuses in Iraq. In any case, if the British forces were stationed in the central, western and central-northern regions of Iraq, there could be little doubt that they would be suffering casualty rates equal to or exceeding those currently sustained by the US military.
The British policy of granting substantial autonomy and freedom of action to Shi'ite political parties and their militias has been less driven by benevolence and careful planning than by a lack of troops on the ground.
The British military presence in southern Iraq - although substantial - is still nowhere near enough to ensure security over the vast regions where they operate. Given this limited capability, it made sense to delegate various security tasks to the militias, mainly the Badr Organization (previously Badr Brigade) of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the various militias belonging to Muqtada al-Sadr's movement and its offshoots.
Given the numerical strength of these militias and the political and socio-economic influence wielded by their mother organizations, it was no great surprise that they managed to heavily penetrate newly established police and security structures in southern Iraq. Recent attempts by the British to reverse this process have led to tension, which may be a factor behind the targeting of their forces.
A much more worrying factor for the Iraqi Shi'ite organizations is intense British intelligence activities all over Iraq, but particularly in the south. The fear is that the British are planning a long-term intelligence presence in Iraq, which would long outlast their military presence in the country.
These fears are not without basis, as every civilian and military agency of the British secret state has a presence in Iraq. These include the Secret Intelligence Service (better known as MI6), GCHQ (the electronic surveillance arm of the British intelligence), the Army Intelligence Corps and elements of the revamped Force Research Unit (an ultra-secret branch of British military intelligence, which gained notoriety for its abuses in Northern Ireland[db edit: added links..... it's now the Special Reconnaissance Regiment - also acknowledged as being involved in the execution of Jean Charles de Menezes in Stockwell,London July 22 2005 ] ).
Even the British domestic security service (MI5) and the Metropolitan police Special Branch maintain a presence in Iraq. Given the breadth and depth of this intelligence presence, it is not altogether surprising that the Iraqi Shi'ites are fast losing confidence in the British. This is compounded by their historical experience with the British, who favored the Arab Sunnis over the Shi'ites in the 1920s, thus setting in train the complex dynamics that culminated in the rise of Arab nationalists and Saddam Hussein. Interestingly, the Shi'ites still maintain confidence in the Americans, believing that the Americans are committed to irreversibly altering the balance of power in Iraq and the wider region in favor of the Shi'ites. Read more