The man who orchestrated the killing of 67 UK troops in Basra province is ready to do it again
* The only way to deal with scum like this are targetedÂ assassinations. But the Brits areÂ light-yearsÂ away from that. James Bond? License to kill? Only in the movies…*Â He wouldn’t be so smug if he was facing soldiers who shot their enemy instead of capturing them. He’d be hiding in a hole, afraid for his life and fighting a losing battle.
Hundreds of terrorists have been killed by the SAS waging a “secret war” against al-Qaeda in Iraq, The Sunday Telegraph can disclose.* Good on you, Brits! Keep it up!
AMERICAN raids on Taliban and Al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan could provoke terror attacks in London,Pakistan’s high commissioner to the UK warned yesterday.
“in Europe in general and Great Britain and Denmark in particular”, the latter in retaliation for insulting the Prophet Muhammad through publication of the infamous “Muhammad cartoons.”
FROM a glance at the clean-shaven young man in jeans puffing serenely on an apple-flavoured hubble-bubble in a coffee shop near Beirut, you would never guess that he had set off a firestorm of shootings and bombings that killed 67 British soldiers in the southern Iraqi province of Baser.
Yet Sheikh Ahmad Fartusi, a 36-year-old father of three, not only launched the operations that shook British troops struggling to win the hearts and minds of Basra’s people four years ago; he orchestrated attacks for 18 months until he was caught, and inspired the fighters who continued the violence while he languished in prison.
Such is his standing in the Shi’ite Mahdi Army that he was able to halt the onslaught last year in a secret deal negotiated with British officials in his cell. He was freed six months ago, apparently at the request of Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister.
Speaking to The Sunday Times in his first interview, Fartusi gazed out over the shimmering Mediterranean and reflected that everything had changed in Basra since the spring.
He claimed British forces had reneged on the deal that allowed them to withdraw peacefully from central Basra to an airbase outside the city, reportedly in return for the release of 120 Mahdi Army prisoners.
The agreement had been broken, he said, when the British returned to Basra last March following Maliki’s 15,000-strong “charge of the knights” to seize control from the Mahdi Army and other militias.
“The British forces will regret breaching the deal, which was aimed at preventing the spilling of blood,” Fartusi said. “The deal is now over. Attacks on the British forces will resume, as will the bombardment of their bases. Even their convoys will not be spared.”
Fartusi also described how he had helped to recover the bodies of four American hostages and one Austrian killed in Basra. He said he was concerned that a group of British hostages kidnapped by Mahdi fighters in Baghdad could be at risk if negotiations for their release did not resume soon.
His comments were a reminder that, although the violence in Iraq has abated in recent months, the dangers remain. Here in the relaxed surroundings of a coast-road cafe far from the frictions of Iraq’s great cities was a militia commander in constant communication with his men through a laptop and two mobile phones.
His conversations with them suggested that he had the authority to order a resumption of attacks whenever he chose.
Fartusi is no mere street thug. He confided that he had studied Britain’s military history, delved into the psychology of its constituent nations and even drawn on Google Earth to plan a campaign aimed at driving out soldiers who had invaded to oust Saddam Hussein but came to be seen as occupiers.
“We fought them with honour,” he said softly. “We would never attack the British forces if they were visiting hospitals or schools or public premises with civilians. We would cut off their fuel supplies but not their food.”
The claim was countered by a British military analyst. “Insurgency campaigns across the world are always marked by ambush,” said Charles Hey-man, editor of Armed Forces of the United Kingdom. “You can’t use the word honourable to describe what insurgents do.” NO SOONER had Fartusi accepted his appointment as the Basra commander of the Mahdi Army early in 2004 than he set to work on his plan of attack.
“I’d been told I was to command a force of more than 70,000 men,” he recalled with a laugh. “It was an exaggeration, of course, but I needed to know my force’s numbers and fighting ability. I also needed to test my enemy’s prowess and its fighting ability.”
As he was devising his strategy, tensions increased sharply with the closure of a newspaper associated with Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shi’ite cleric and Mahdi Army leader.
Sadr gave a fiery speech, calling on his followers to rise up against the US-led occupation. While Mahdi fighters mounted attacks in the holy city of Najaf to the north, Fartusi organised a show of strength in Basra.
“Our offices were being raided, members arrested, check-points were emerging in the streets and services had not improved in the city,” he said. “Now that they were behaving as occupiers, it was only natural for us to begin resistance.”
Hundreds of his men swarmed onto the streets at dawn one April day, blocking junctions with burning tyres and bringing the city to a halt as they seized the offices of the governor, Wael Abdul Latif, who fled.
Fartusi ordered them to withdraw at midday when they had encountered no significant resistance from British forces. He judged that the British preferred not to engage and that attacks could therefore force them to leave.
In a further demonstration that the Mahdi Army could operate on the streets with impunity, his men planted six improvised explosive devices a few days later, then tipped off the British that they needed to be defused. BY MAY, Fartusi was overseeing a series of hit-and-run attacks against the British. Two of his fighters were killed and three British soldiers were injured as gunfire and explosions reverberated through the port. Armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, the Mahdi fighters then stormed government buildings and set up roadblocks in residential areas.
“I wanted to send a message to the British that we could take Basra whenever we wanted,” Fartusi said.
The gun battles intensified during the summer after four senior Mahdi Army officers were arrested. Fartusi’s men ambushed two British Land Rovers, firing on them with AK-47 assault rifles from roofs and doorways, then striking them with a homemade bomb and a rocket-propelled grenade.
The British showed their mettle in a way that earned their enemy’s admiration. Sergeant Terry Bryan, 37, of the Royal Artillery, covered his patrol’s escape to a nearby house where, in spite of leg and eye injuries, he led his men in a fierce firefight until help arrived. He was awarded a Conspicuous Gallantry Cross.
Such courage came as no surprise to Fartusi, who had designated a special team to study the British Army.
“We read articles about their history during the Ottoman empire and their occupations, ranging from Sudan to India. We read everything about the British forces, how they negotiated several deals, sometimes directly and other times indirectly. We learnt about their war in Ireland,” he said.
“We concluded that they were an enemy to be reckoned with, an enemy to be respected, one we should not underestimate.”
Fartusi said he had also tried to establish the political and psychological significance of the regiments’ royal connections and any differences in character between the English, the Scots and the Irish.
He decided to adopt the IRA’s tactic of warning British forces that bombs had been planted “even if they weren’t always given the exact locations”.
As rocket attacks on British bases increased, Google Earth proved a valuable source of information, Fartusi revealed. Its images showed the location of buildings, tents, latrines and lightly armoured vehicles, all of which were targeted.
Fartusi said his fighters had infiltrated the British by paying some of their Iraqi employees, including translators. “Our intelligence was extensive,” he said. “We had collaborators in their midst who gave us information on their movements.
Sometimes we had intelligence on their movements 10 to 12 hours in advance.
“The difference between us was simple. We had spies among them whereas they were alone.”
His men also attacked supply lines between Kuwait and Basra. They could be disrupted
at any moment, Fartusi said, and the proceeds of his raids were traded for weapons.
“All we needed were one or two trucks from a convoy. The captured trucks were sold to unscrupulous Kurdish business-men. The money was used to buy weapons and vehicles for our operations.”
He was disappointed to be informed that one lorry contained nothing more than fruit. “I distributed the produce to the army and the poor,” he laughed.
Fartusi believes the British at first made the mistake of underestimating their enemy. “They dismissed us initially, forgetting that we were waging guerrilla warfare and we were experts at this, having battled against Saddam’s oppression for years.”
By the time he was arrested, the British forces’ berets, rubber bullets and lightly armed foot patrols had been replaced by helmets, heavy duty fire-power and armoured vehicles that seemed increasingly confined to base. FARTUSI was watching televi-sion at midnight on September 18, 2005, when British forces stormed his home.
“I struggled and tried to box those grabbing me. I was beaten with their rifle butts, kicked with their boots in front of my wife and children,” he said. “I was blindfolded, my hands cuffed behind my back and I was dragged outside.”
He claims that at the Shaibah base southwest of Basra the following day, he was left outside in the heat with flies crawling over wounds on his arms and head. “I couldn’t flick them away as my hands were tied behind my back.”
His detention brought back bitter memories of his own father’s arrest by Saddam’s regime in 1984 for belonging to an opposition party. Two uncles were executed and the family lost property and even their children’s places at school. One of Fartusi’s brothers had an ear cut off because another brother had fled the country.
Fartusi became an ardent follower of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, Moqtada’s father, whose assassination in 1999 triggered an intifada, or uprising, in Basra.
When support promised from opposition groups in Iran failed to materialise, Fartusi fled to Turkey and eventually settled in Lebanon. He returned to Basra in October 2003, when British forces had been in place for six months. INTERROGATED by the British, he was repeatedly accused of having links to Iran and the Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon, and of having formed a breakaway group of the Mahdi Army. He insisted that none of it was true.
British officials visited him twice in prison, he said, once to negotiate the withdrawal of their forces from the centre of Basra and a second time at the Americans’ request to seek his help in establishing the fate of four kidnapped US contractors.
He discovered through an intermediary that they and an Austrian hostage had been killed seven months earlier because their captors saw nothing to gain from keeping them alive. They demanded $100,000 for each body.
Fartusi asked for proof that the bodies were accessible and one finger was sent from each man. He talked the price down to $20,000 per body, which Fartusi said he had paid. The bodies were then handed over in exchange for the release of 20 prisoners held by the US.
According to Fartusi, the Americans have failed to return the favour to the UK by releasing prisoners demanded by the kidnappers of five British hostages seized from the Iraqi finance ministry last year. Their captors claimed in a video in July that one hostage had committed suicide.
Fartusi said the Americans had detained an Iraqi government official, Haj Shibil al-Zu-baidi, who had been trying to negotiate the release of the British hostages. No further talks had taken place since his arrest in March.
“The danger is that the fate of the British hostages ends up similar to the fate of the Americans,” Fartusi said.
“The longer the case drags on, the more indifferent the kidnappers become. The fear is that eventually they too come to see their hostages as a dangerous liability and end up killing them.”
As for his fight against the British, Fartusi says he is ready to start all over again, even though Mahdi Army attacks on their base have fallen to one a month and Sadr has ordered all but an elite force to disarm.
“I’m proud if they accuse me of being a terrorist,” Fartusi said. “Whatever the number of soldiers killed during my command, what did these forces expect? Did they think I should have offered them bouquets of flowers rather than fight them for occupying my country?
“I have killed defending my country and my honour. I have no regrets.”
Additional reporting: Sara Hashash