19 September 2005
I’m sitting inside a British Army Lynx helicopter as it begins circling the sprawling Hayaniyah district in the port city of Basra, in southern Iraq. I don’t want to be here but it’s my duty. I’m a major in the British Army; I’ve come to Basra to serve not just in the name of that army but also in the name of justice – to protect the human rights of the Iraqis who inhabit this land we have made our home, no matter how temporarily – and I’ve just been given an order to get in this helicopter bound for al-Jamiat, the notorious police station in this desperate city.
As the chopper swirls around, a frightening, chaotic scene is unfolding below us: hundreds of furious Iraqis are trying to storm the compound around al-Jamiat. The only thing blocking their path is a cordon of British soldiers at the entrance. For these soldiers, the danger is obvious: many of the Iraqis have begun hurling petrol bombs, and black smoke is filling the sky above the compound. The violence is doubly alarming as there’s a real possibility that Shiite militants in the crowd may begin firing rocket-propelled grenades at the foreign troops they so hate.
All this is taking place as the chopper brings us down, its blades cutting ribbons through the smoke. I’m afraid of what awaits us here, among these men who want us gone so badly – but I’m also here to do my job. There’s no room for fear, not even for doubt. For now, the mission is what matters.
I’m in Basra as the sole legal adviser to the UK brigade commander in Iraq, but what’s put me in this helicopter is that it has fallen to me – a 33-year-old, Australian-born military lawyer from a Muslim background – to help save the lives of two British Special Forces soldiers who are being illegally held captive somewhere inside the police station compound.
So here I am, wearing full-body armour and cradling an SA80 assault rifle between my knees. I have a moment to wonder whether many other military lawyers have found themselves so far out of their comfort zone, rescuing SAS soldiers from Islamic extremists. It certainly wasn’t part of my job description when I joined the army as a lawyer, looking for something different from the routine of law firms, client meetings and court visits. I joined because being a lawyer in the army afforded me the opportunity to practise law in a way that had meaning for me. In Basra, that has meant acting on behalf of Iraqi citizens. Right now, it means heading into a situation with a completely unpredictable outcome.
The Jamiat police station is an extremely dangerous place for any member of the British Army, let alone our two SAS soldiers. It’s the headquarters of the Serious Crimes Unit (SCU), which local Iraqis refer to – without joking – as the ‘Murder Squad’.
They know, and we know, that the SCU is staffed and run by members of a Shiite insurgency group called Jaish al-Mahdi, which was set up a couple of years ago by the notorious anti-occupation cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The SCU really are the bad guys. By day, they masquerade as police officers; by night, they kidnap, torture and murder Sunnis, foreign civilians and soldiers, as well as liberal members of the Iraqi community who refuse to be told what to do by the Islamic fundamentalists trying to invade all forms of government in southern Iraq. The British have controlled southern Iraq – and Basra – since the 2003 invasion, when Saddam Hussein was overthrown, but the infiltration of the city’s police force by Jaish al-Mahdi insurgents has put everyone’s lives at risk.
The police officer who essentially runs the SCU is a man called Captain Jaffar. We have good intelligence that Jaffar is a senior member of Jaish al-Mahdi and, accordingly, his house has become the focus of a covert surveillance operation. The two SAS soldiers were involved in this operation when they aroused the suspicions of local Iraqis, who noticed the two strangers – dressed in civilian clothing and wearing shemaghs, or Arab scarves, around their faces – driving around in a car and taking photographs. The locals alerted the police, who set up a checkpoint to intercept the pair, but when the soldiers spotted the checkpoint they opened fire, reportedly seriously injuring one of the policemen.
The soldiers took off as fast as they could, but didn’t get far before their car was surrounded by Iraqi police, who forced them to a halt. The soldiers, whom I’d met and knew by their pseudonyms as Ed and Di, immediately identified themselves as members of the British military. At this point they should have been handed over to the British military occupation authorities, as required under the Status of Forces Agreement between the British and Iraqi governments. Instead, the police clubbed them with rifle butts and took them directly to the Jamiat – apparently on Jaffar’s orders, after his men had contacted him and alerted him to the incident.
When we heard what had happened, back at our base at Basra Airport, we feared the worst. Only two days earlier, British and Iraqi troops had arrested and detained a man called Ahmed al-Fartusi, who we knew was the head of the southern Iraq arm of Jaish al-Mahdi. If the condition for letting Ed and Di go was Fartusi’s release – as we suspected it might be – then we were all in very big trouble.
So the news was grim even before an update came through a short time later, about rumours being spread throughout the city: that the strangers arrested by the police were, in fact, Israeli spies. This is just about the worst thing that anyone could allege about our two soldiers. Iraq and Israel are not friends and never have been. Just as they were meant to, the rumours sparked huge anger and brought hundreds of enraged Iraqis to the entrance of the police station, where they are now watching our arrival.
As soon as we learnt the soldiers were in the Jamiat, the head of the UK brigade’s surveillance unit, Major James Woodham, was sent to try to persuade the police to release them. By the time he was allowed to see them, they were bloodied, blindfolded and chained to chairs in a cell. But his negotiations to have the pair freed went nowhere.
The police at the Jamiat, as well as an Iraqi judge who’s been summoned to the station, have told James they won’t speak to anyone except ‘Major Rabia’, as they call me. I’ve often been to the Jamiat as part of my job with the army. I know some of the police there quite well, and I also know the judge in question, Raghib al-Mudhaffar, who works for the chief judge of Basra, Laith Abdul Sammad, known by us as Judge Laith.
Indeed, I’ve often gone ‘outside the wire’ in both Basra and Baghdad to give the Iraqi judiciary and other law enforcement agencies as much help as they need to re-establish the rule of law in their region. I’ve done this because although it’s not technically part of my job, I feel it’s part of my role. We’re in this place to help the local people – and, yes, even lawyers can help people. Returning stability to this region is crucial, and the rule of law is vital to that stability. Accordingly, I’ve done whatever I can to help bring this about.
So I know a lot of key Iraqi officials, and my hope is that my Muslim background, as well as the respect I’ve always shown them and my ability to speak a little Arabic, have helped break down barriers. We’re regarded as an occupying army and it has been important for me to gain their trust. I haven’t done this cynically; I’ve genuinely wanted to form relationships with these people. It is, as I’ve learnt in the past, the only way we can work together effectively.
Since I’ve arrived here I’ve often been asked about my background, and I’ve replied that I was born in Perth, Australia, and grew up there – the elder child of a Muslim Indian father and a Protestant Australian mother who converted to Islam when she got married. What the Iraqis have made of this I don’t know, but they seem to accept me and I’ve therefore felt I can do my work effectively.
That work has often involved visits to al-Jamiat. After I was posted to Basra, one of my highest priorities became the preparation of a class action for the Iraq Central Criminal Court in Baghdad against certain members of the Iraqi Police Service. These were men who’d allegedly tortured and murdered more than 300 Sunni Iraqis in Basra alone, during the two years since the 2003 invasion. When I first started visiting al-Jamiat, more than 200 local Sunni men and boys were being illegally held there, many without charge, in appalling conditions.
So in one way James Woodham’s urgent message – relaying the requests from the police and Judge Raghib that I be sent to the Jamiat as quickly as possible – is understandable. They know me. But they also know James – he has accompanied me several times when I’ve gone to the police station to carry out human rights monitoring of prisoners – so on the face of it there is no clear reason why they’ve requested my presence in addition to his. When the message came, however, it wasn’t the time to try to work out the politics at play over at the police station. Our chief of staff, Major Rupert Jones, ordered me to get in a chopper and go.
I was concerned enough by this order to phone the brigade commander, Brigadier John Lorimer, who instructed me to stay at the base. He thought the situation too volatile. I haven’t been trained for close combat and I’m not a trained hostage negotiator. Rupert, however, countermanded this order. Rank was no obstacle to him; he’d often butt back against full colonels and lieutenant colonels despite the fact he was only a major. His father, Lieutenant Colonel ‘H’ Jones, was killed in the Falklands War while Rupert and his brother were still young, and afterwards had been celebrated as a hero. So Rupert had big shoes to fill.
‘Do your fucking job. Go in there and get those boys out,’ he said when I informed him of Brigadier Lorimer’s order. Or words to that effect.
That’s all very well, but hostage negotiation is not part of my job – and this thought was very much on my mind as I left on that chopper for the Jamiat. Hostage negotiation requires skills not covered in law degrees, not even in the sort of law practice I have here in Basra. But I will follow my orders.
Once we begin circling the police station, it’s obvious things are much worse than I was told back at base. My sense of foreboding – so easily triggered in this sort of situation – is growing with each turn of the rotor. Iraqi police officers have positioned themselves on the roofs of some of the compound’s buildings, with their weapons ostensibly pointed at the Iraqi protestors. In reality, they’re aiming them at the British soldiers guarding the entrance.
As the chopper goes into a combat descent – straight down very fast – I feel fear and real doubt that I have the ability to negotiate a hostage release. I’m also terrified at the thought of having to use my assault rifle for real, for the first time. Before we land I try to find faith, to force myself to believe that God will look after me and provide me with the strength and wisdom to do what is needed. This is not some moment-of-crisis conversion – my faith in a being greater than us all is real; I just don’t call on it too often.
This is probably also the moment when I realise that in the rush to get to the Jamiat, I’ve forgotten to put on the hijab I’ve always worn as a mark of respect when working in my official role with Iraqis, most of whom are men. Although not a garment I was in the habit of wearing regularly, it’s a part of Iraqi culture. But obviously there’s nothing I can do about my missing hijab now.
The chopper lands for safety’s sake a short distance from the police station, and I spend those last few moments of relative peace preparing myself psychologically for whatever is about to happen. By now I can see a number of British tanks on the outer perimeter of the compound. The crowd is screaming abuse. Explosions from petrol bombs being lobbed by members of that crowd are becoming more frequent, and the sound of small-arms fire is everywhere.
I run from the chopper as fast as I can, so the pilot can immediately take off again – it’s not safe for him to stay. For one weak moment I feel panic, but then within two or three seconds I tense up physically as I get ready – not necessarily for action, but to go into al-Jamiat and get Ed and Di out. And very quickly I say a prayer in my head: Dear God, give me the strength and the wisdom and the courage to do what I need to do, and keep me safe.
Two British officers arrive and we drive in a Land Rover towards the gates of the compound, but we have to stop about 100 metres away because by now the crowd is so big we can’t get through it. At this stage one of the officers from the Coldstream Guards – the regiment keeping the Iraqi protestors at bay – escorts me almost to the front entrance of the station. Here, a couple of armed Iraqis – possibly police – part the crowd and allow me to enter the compound. This, however, infuriates the rioters. There’s a lot of screaming and shouting, and abusive Arabic words directed at me; it’s nerve-racking.
James appears, looking tense. He’s been separated from the men in his unit. They arrived at the Jamiat with him but weren’t allowed into the compound. A British military interpreter accompanying James turns white the moment he sees me.
‘Sorry, sir, I can’t do this,’ he says and then basically runs out of the compound with his hands over his head. I guess he’s either very ill or finds this to be the last straw: sending a woman into the situation.
‘Thank you for coming,’ James says. ‘It’s good you’re here.’
At least he’s staying. The next moment, the gates close behind us.
The police station is divided into two compounds: the so-called Serious Crimes Unit operates in one; in the other another section of the Iraqi police, the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA), is headquartered. We’ve always been less interested in the DIA because their officers are pretty much controlled by the SCU, but we’ve had more success dealing with the DIA than the SCU, and found them more cooperative – although none of the men from either unit is to be trusted.
James and I now go directly to see Colonel Ali al-Sewan, head of the DIA. We find the colonel sitting at his desk, flanked by a number of his police officers, whom I’ve seen before in meetings. Also present are probably half a dozen SCU men, some of whom we know to be members of Jaish al-Mahdi. Whenever I’ve visited the Jamiat in the past, the SCU men have always remained at a distance – but that certainly isn’t the case today. The room is far too small for any of us to keep a distance.
Judge Raghib is also there. Everyone calls him ‘the terrorist judge’ because he presides over the terrorist court – although for the Iraqis the word ‘terrorism’ includes a gamut of offences those in the West would classify very differently. Any act seen as being against the radical fundamentalist regime in southern Iraq is branded as terrorism. Consequently, most of the more serious crimes end up before Judge Raghib.
The intriguing thing about Judge Raghib’s request for me to be sent to al-Jamiat is that I don’t entirely trust him. From information and also from my own research, he doesn’t seem to be playing a very straight game at all. I’ve been concerned about the way he deals – or, in some cases, doesn’t deal – with people in detention. Moreover, I’ve only just started working with him and I don’t think we have built up such a strong relationship.
I’ve been quite robust with him on occasion because he has had a lot to answer for in terms of delaying the court process, not dispensing justice and not giving people the opportunity to face their charges. These aren’t things I’m prepared to ignore, no matter who I’m dealing with. Maybe he has formed an impression of me in these few dealings we’ve had. Maybe he’s been advised – by someone whose identity I can’t guess – that he is to negotiate only with me. Maybe it’s a bit of both. It’s puzzling, though.
The others in the room include, predictably, a number of Shiite clerics. Saddam Hussein’s regime was run mainly by Sunni Muslims until they were overthrown by the Shiites after the allied invasion of Iraq.
So this is the mix James and I are dealing with, and it’s not encouraging: Shiite clerics, senior police officers who are really extremists and insurgents – and one other figure. For standing next to Colonel Sewan is Captain Jaffar.
Typically, business meetings in Basra start with half an hour of small talk and pleasantries. In other circumstances, we would be offered a soft drink at this point, but this time – significantly – we’re not offered anything. There seems to be a lot of discussion going on between the policemen and the clerics, although I can’t understand what’s being said because they’re talking in low voices. The clerics did a double take when I first walked in with James, no doubt because they’re not used to seeing me without a hijab, but at this stage I’m still being treated professionally, and with respect, by the Iraqi men in the room.
James and I have a volunteer interpreter with us; he’s not fluent in English, but he’s good enough. When I feel it’s safe to proceed – and using the respectful, rather grandiose way of speaking that is common at meetings with Iraqis – I say, ‘You’ve asked for me. I’ve come willingly. I’ve come with pleasure. I believe there has been a misunderstanding.’ I go on to say that I’m here to clear up this misunderstanding, and I ask if it’s possible to see the two prisoners before we get down to business.
Both Colonel Sewan and Captain Jaffar try to speak at this point, but Judge Raghib puts up a hand as if to say, ‘No, I’m running the show.’ From there on, for the next ten minutes, the conversation is pretty much between the judge and me.
‘You know these men have done terrible things,’ Judge Raghib says. ‘I’ve heard they shot civilians. They’re spies. I don’t think they’re British.’
‘I have very good information that they really are British soldiers,’ I tell him. ‘In regard to what they’ve done, let’s talk about that later. But you can trust me. You know me. If they’ve done anything wrong, I will see to it that justice is served.’
I then remind him about the law, which states that the Iraqis must hand the two prisoners over to us, and reiterate that he knows I’m a person of my word and that I’ll do the right thing. ‘We can keep having this conversation,’ I add, ‘but first, please, may I see the two men? I’d like to see for myself they’re all right.’
Judge Raghib says something to the colonel. Their discussion looks heated, but the judge gets his way.
I’m slowly starting to feel that I have a little bit of power in this situation. The judge and I appear to be making headway, and I feel we’re definitely on our way to brokering a deal. No one else has been part of our discussion – neither the clerics nor the other police officers. I don’t, though, find anything strange in this – the judge and I are conducting a negotiation, and negotiations are usually simpler when they involve only two people. Eventually, we all stand up to walk over to the adjacent compound where the SAS men are being held, but James is told to sit down – they won’t allow him to come with me.
‘I’m not going without him,’ I say immediately – because all the clerics and the police officers have stood up at the same time. There’s no way I’m going to be taken to another compound accompanied by about twenty of these guys – most of whom I don’t trust – and be separated from my only colleague and ally. Nor is it safe for him to be left behind without his only ally. We have to stay together. ‘Major James is coming with me,’ I reiterate firmly.
I think how odd it is that my rifle hasn’t been taken from me. James still has his, too. So we haven’t been offered the usual cans of Coke, but we have been allowed to keep our rifles. Perhaps, with so many police in the room, our weapons were not considered a threat. Obviously, if James and I decide to make any attempt to use them, we’ll be easy to kill.
Now, in the company of our warped version of a Praetorian Guard, James and I go out and around the front of one compound, then through the side door of the second. As we walk we feel the humid, dusty heat and pass portacabins just like the ones in our own compound. We see the sandy car park and the twin gates marking the entrance – and the barrier between us and the crowd outside.
I don’t pay a lot of attention to what’s going on outside the walls, although I can hear the noise of the crowd growing stronger and I also catch a glimpse of the tops of quite a few British tanks. They’re a small reassurance that James and I are not alone. It is a reassurance I need, for by now I am fighting trepidation and anxiety by trying to focus on the job at hand.
I focus on the alleyways we have to walk through on our way into the second compound. These are flanked on both sides by SCU officers, whom I find incredibly intimidating, given their reputations as torturers and murderers. But I can’t think about any of that for long. I’m here to do a job – and so is James – and we must do it. To allow myself to be distracted by fear is not useful. It’s never useful.
We then walk up two flights of stairs to a concrete cell that’s probably the size of a classroom, which is where we find Ed and Di – along with half a dozen policemen. Within seconds, another twenty or thirty police officers file in after us. The cell is suddenly crammed with people.
Ed and Di are lying on the floor. They’re still hooded, handcuffed and in chains, although their hoods are taken off as we walk in. They both look at me; Ed gives me a little smile out of the corner of his mouth; Di just looks startled – perhaps I’m the last person he expected to see. I couldn’t blame him – I’m the last person I expected to be here.
Both men’s shirts are bloodied. Ed’s head is encased in a bandage. They’ve both obviously been badly beaten. I ask no one in particular – but all of the officers in general – if Ed’s and Di’s handcuffs can be taken off and if they can be given chairs to sit on. I also ask for both to be given water. Their handcuffs are taken off without delay – a good sign, I feel – and they’re given water.
‘Are you all right?’ I ask them both.
They nod, smile and say they are. I’m not allowed to talk to them too much – this is made clear by one of the officers in the room – but I do tell them that everything is going to be fine and that we’ll get them out of there. By now, though, there’s so much noise from the crowds outside the station that I can’t be sure how much they’ve heard.
Chairs are brought for the men, and one for me as well. A fourth chair is brought for the judge. No one else is given a seat. No one else seems to be a player at this point. But the police in the cell are standing very, very close to me. It’s clear that they mean to intimidate me. I’m determined not to let them.
‘Thank you for letting me see our soldiers,’ I say to Judge Raghib in Arabic, picking up our conversation. ‘Can we have a discussion in their presence?’
‘I don’t see why not,’ the judge replies.
We discuss the conditions the judge would be happy to sign off on if Ed and Di are to be released into my custody; the translator writes these down as part of a rough document. In essence, these conditions are that the Iraqi investigators will be allowed access to the soldiers, to interview them, and I will ensure an independent investigation on our side.
The two soldiers won’t leave the jurisdiction until a full investigation has occurred, and if there’s any evidence of wrongdoing or criminal acts on their part, they’ll be dealt with. As to how they would be dealt with, we’ll liaise with the Iraqis on this matter. But in the meantime they’ll be released into my custody today. I also say I’ll take evidence from Iraqis who’ve witnessed any wrongdoing.
The final term of the agreement is that by day’s end a letter will be provided to the judge authorising the release of the two soldiers; it will be signed by either Chief Judge Laith or the governor of Basra, Mohammed al-Waili, who is also the head of Basra Provincial Council.
Judge Raghib agrees to all of this and I start to breathe out, just a little bit. The atmosphere in the room shifts slightly as we prepare to sign the document the translator has drawn up.
Suddenly, rocket-propelled grenades explode all around the building. The room shakes and I see flames shooting up outside. There can be only one conclusion: the compound is being stormed by the rampaging crowd. The officers inside the cell immediately start shouting. They grab Ed and Di, throw them in a corner, and handcuff and blindfold them again.
I stand up immediately. ‘Stop! What are you doing?’ I ask them. ‘We just agreed to a set of conditions! You can’t do this!’
There’s more shouting in the cell – and then the police take the two men away.
‘Stop! This isn’t what we agreed!’ I’m screaming in Arabic and English. ‘Please bring them back, I beg you!’
The remaining police cock their weapons, grab me, grab James, and throw us out of the cell. Perhaps most terrifying of all for us is seeing Judge Raghib treated almost as roughly. It’s not hard to guess what this means.
As the police surround us, Judge Raghib looks at me and says, in Arabic, ‘I’m sorry. I no longer have the power. It’s no longer up to me.’ Then he walks away fast.
In this moment, there are many responses – physical and emotional – vying for supremacy inside me. The greatest is shock. We were so close to signing – to having Ed and Di released. I genuinely thought I’d brokered a deal and achieved what the army had sent me in to do. With Judge Raghib gone, my power is gone as well. I’m no longer in a position of control. Since arriving in Basra I’ve had occasion to feel nervous, concerned, worried and upset. Never before have I been scared. I’m scared now.
Aside from James, I have not a single ally present. I’m a foreign, female, Muslim member of the British Army in an Iraqi police station run by Shiite Muslim extremists who hate the occupying forces with a passion. Outside, a violent, vengeful crowd thinks we’re trying to rescue two Israeli spies. I’m a stranger in a strange land. In the strangest of lands, perhaps. At the most trying of times.
James and I are forced back down the stairs and into a makeshift office, where Captain Jaffar and his men are waiting. We’re surrounded by SCU officers – killers, every one of them. A large number of the hostile clerics who stood sullenly by as Judge Raghib and I talked are also present, together with a few civilians from the local community whom I’ve seen on other occasions. But there are no pleasantries or expressions of civility now.
The atmosphere has turned hostile – I can feel it, like daggers hovering in the air. There will be no negotiating Ed and Di’s release with these people now. I don’t know what’s in store for us. These aren’t the men I’m used to dealing with, and they’re not used to dealing with me.
There are probably about forty people in the office altogether. I’m the only woman. A lot of men are sitting down, but just as many are standing up. James and I are also standing, and I begin to feel like an animal in the zoo. Everyone is staring at us, sneering and telling jokes under their breath, and looking at me in a very disrespectful way – any woman will know what I mean by that. This is especially frightening because of the conversations being directed at us, as well as the conversations going on between individual men.
I can understand what’s being said: they’re discussing whether they should kill us immediately or later on or take us to another location. Or maybe we should simply ‘dis- appear’, which basically means we’ll be put in the back of a truck, driven to the middle of nowhere and shot in the back of the head. I repeat everything I hear to James, and we both steadfastly keep repeating the same phrases to our captors: ‘We’re not going anywhere,’ we tell them. ‘We refuse to go anywhere else.’
Then another group of men arrives and they seem to be in a frenzy. One of them – a stocky man with a short beard – screams over and over that the British forces have killed one of his relatives. So clearly this man knows we’re not Israelis – but he also clearly knows we’re from the British Army. And he’s holding an AK-47 assault rifle. James stands just behind me, and there’s a chair between us. I feel very vulnerable with my colleague at my back and nothing standing between me and that man.
Suddenly the screaming man cocks his weapon and points it straight at us.
For me, an old, familiar emotion comes rushing back. I’m alone. No one is going to protect me so it’s up to me to take care of myself. The last time I felt this alone was long ago – when I was nine, and growing up in Australia.
Excerpted from Equal Justice by Rabbia Siddique. Copyright © 2013 by Rabia Siddique.
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