Message in Basra

IN RAIDING AND DESTROYING an Iraqi police station where crimes were said to be committed, not solved, British forces sent an important message to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki: Torturers and murderers must be rooted out even when they act under color of the law, and even when reining them in offends political sensitivities.

The Christmas Day assault on the so-called Serious Crimes Unit in Basra by more than 1,000 British and Iraqi troops freed 127 prisoners, many of whom showed signs of torture. The headquarters long had been suspected of being infiltrated by death squads linked to tribal rivalries and organized crime. A British officer described the British-led operation as “part of a long-term rehabilitation of the Iraqi police service.”

The assault followed a raid earlier this month in Basra during which British and Danish forces detained five tribal leaders with ties to Shiite militias. With Britain expected to reduce its 7,000-member force in Iraq next year, British forces have been trying to weaken rogue forces in Basra, for which they have security responsibilities.

Although Iraqi military officials obviously signed off on the British plan, some local officials complained that they weren’t consulted and that the operation amounted to overkill. The complaint is misplaced. If, as the British say, the station was the scene of atrocities and impending executions, the officials themselves were remiss. They can’t reasonably complain about a show of force designed to save lives and stop torture.


The question is whether the Iraqi government, which has troubling ties to Shiite militias, will do more than acquiesce in operations such as this. On Oct. 31, the Maliki government ordered the U.S. to remove checkpoints outside Sadr City, the stronghold of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr -- checkpoints that were set up to help find a captured U.S. solider. No wonder U.S. national security advisor Stephen J. Hadley, in a now-famous memo, questioned whether Maliki “is both willing and able to rise above the sectarian agendas being promoted by others.”

Whether or not President Bush approves a temporary “surge” of U.S. troops to help stabilize Baghdad, the president’s benchmark of success -- an Iraq that can “govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself” -- ultimately will depend on a willingness by Maliki and his successors to establish one rule of law in Iraq. The British and, yes, the Americans, won’t be there forever.