Dispatch

They'll Have to Pry this Rock from Our Cold Dead Hands

Why Gibraltar is the most important part of England since the Royal Baby.

LONDON — The sun set on the British Empire long ago, but there remain a few small corners of the world where the Union Jack still flies. Britain's remaining overseas territories are far-flung and usually far from anyone's mind. You get a sense of these places' embattled history just from their mottoes: "Let the lion protect his own land" (South Georgia), "Be Watchful" (British Virgin Islands), "Strength and Endurance" (Anguilla), "Loyal and Unshakeable" (St. Helena) and "No enemy shall expel us" (Gibraltar). Passed-by and ignored by the outside world, they cling to their Britishness with a passion that's as endearing as it is entertaining.

The Rock of Gibraltar, 2.5 square miles of limestone perched above the western entrance to the Mediterranean, is back in the news just in time for this year's summer silly season. The Spanish are on maneuvers again, menacing the embattled 28,000 inhabitants of Britain's last significant Mediterranean possession. The plucky inhabitants, British to the marrow, are having none of it. 

In this they have the full support of Fleet Street's flotilla of desktop admirals. As the Daily Mail put it, "Mired in corruption, facing economic meltdown, the Spanish government plays its age-old trick to distract attention from problems at home: rattling its sabre against the people of Gibraltar, who have been British for 300 years." Unless the Spaniards back down, the paper thundered, David Cameron should take measures to "add to their economic difficulties."

What, you could be forgiven for asking, is going on? What has provoked this tempest of diplomatic ill-will? The short, if less than obvious, answer is 70 concrete blocks dumped into Gibraltan waters. The Gibraltan authorities -- the Rock is British territory but self-governing in all matters other than defense and foreign affairs -- are currently constructing an artificial reef that will, they insist, improve the quality and quantity of marine life in their small patch of ocean. The Spanish, however, suspect that the reef has been laid "without authorization" in what Madrid considers Spanish waters -- and, moreover, it poses a risk to Spanish fishing boats and a threat to ... wait for it ... scallop dredgers. 

Cue escalation! Spain retaliated this week by imposing tougher border controls -- ensuring that visitors to the Rock had to wait for up to six hours to cross the frontier -- and threatening to impose a 50 euro fee for each border crossing. Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, Spain's foreign minister, added that Madrid might even close Spanish airspace to flights headed to the Rock, saying "the party is over" for Gibraltar. Britain's ambassador to Spain lodged a formal protest and, on Wednesday, Prime Minister David Cameron berated his Spanish counterpart, Mariano Rajoy, in a 15-minute telephone conversation devoted exclusively to Gibraltan affairs, warning that unless Spain backed down there was a risk of Anglo-Iberian relations being damaged. 

All this for a lump of limestone that, in 2013, is of no significant strategic importance whatsoever? Yes, indeed. Spain has long coveted the Rock, mainly it seems, because it is attached to Spain. But so is Portugal. The British annexed Gibraltar in 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession (not to be confused with the later War of Jenkin's Ear) and Spain signed away all rights to the Rock in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. Gibraltar has been British ever since. 

And like many of Britain's overseas possessions, it sometimes seems determined to be more British than the British themselves. Fish and chip shops abound, as do red telephone boxes and other familiar "icons" of British life. The Union Jack is ubiquitous. Alongside this cheerful nostalgia for a Britain that has largely disappeared, however, lies a different tale. The Spanish have long suspected Gibraltar of being a haven for cigarette smugglers, money-launderers and assorted other modern ills. Like other British overseas territories (most notoriously the Cayman Islands), Gibraltar has what might be termed a relaxed attitude towards financial services -- corporation tax, for instance, is levied at 10 percent.

Nevertheless, Gibraltar is British and must remain British! Thirty years on from the Falklands War -- a rather more significant dispute and one subject, again, to fresh saber-rattling on both sides -- Fleet Street is once again thrilled at the idea of dispatching the Royal Navy (or what is left of it) to protect the territorial integrity of the Empire. We may know nothing at all about the Gibraltans and few Britons have ever visited the Rock but, by God and in the name of Queen Elizabeth, they're our people. 

Or, as Andrew Rosindell, Conservative minister of Parliament for Romford put it, "the Royal Navy must be dispatched to the waters around Gibraltar to protect British interests and in every international forum and organisation, Britain must use its influence to challenge Spain. We must demonstrate by words and actions that Spain have lost Britain as a friend and if they want to change things, they have to change their own attitude towards Gibraltar." He was not joking. 

London's suspicion that Madrid's attitude is designed to divert attention from Spain's crippling economic woes may be accurate. (Something similar may be true of Argentina's latest posturing over the Falklands.) But, in truth, Spain has no prospect of winning this fight: The law says that Gibraltar is British and talks about joint sovereignty collapsed in 2002 when the Spanish insisted that the Rock would revert to Spain after 50 years. When it comes to Gibraltar, the British take a very legalistic line to justify the occupation of lands overseas: the Spanish signed the Rock away in 1713 and nothing has changed since then. (In the Falklands case, by contrast, the British claim is based on longevity of tenure, not a treaty.) However much sense it might make -- rationally speaking -- for Spain to co-administer the Rock, Madrid's bellicose attitude makes it impossible for any British government to offer a concession that might jeopardize Gibraltar's residents' rights to self-determination.

In truth, both sides would benefit from a better, calmer, more open relationship. The rest of the world may think this dispute laughably ridiculous. Indeed, I imagine many non-Britons wonder why the United Kingdom is so attached to a rock of such negligible significance. But, perhaps paradoxically, it is because Gibraltar does not matter very much that the British people think it matters. 

The British pride themselves on their sympathy for the underdog and view plucky little Gibraltar as the David -- albeit with the Royal Navy as a slingshot -- pitted against a bullying Spanish goliath. If that makes the British look ridiculous then so be it. There are worse things than looking ridiculous, especially if the matter at hand concerns protecting the last embers of empire. In truth, many Britons secretly enjoy these Spanish provocations. There are few things more agreeable to a stout-hearted, roast-beef-and-beer-fed Englishman than telling foreigners -- of whatever filthy stripe -- to go to hell. Gibraltar's continued existence is reassurance that there will, after all, always be an England even if that England is not in England itself. 

Wait, what's that? They've agreed to a dialogue? Come on, England!

JOSE LUIS ROCA/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

The Great Escape

How al Qaeda broke hundreds of bad guys out of the world’s most notorious jail -- and what it means for America.

BAGHDAD — On July 21, the temperature spiked to a sweltering 107 degrees in Baghdad -- brutal heat for the guards and prisoners inside Abu Ghraib's cement confines. Outside, among a patchwork of green farmland and dry brown fields, federal police and army troops -- packing AK-47s, PKC machine guns and sniper rifles -- were positioned throughout the terrain, which is dotted with Sunni farms and villages where insurgents had once launched a guerrilla war against U.S. troops. Within the walls of the infamous prison, the guards -- armed only with pepper spray and clubs -- were the last line of defense from would-be assailants.

At around 9 p.m. that night, as detainees were being counted on the way back to their cells after dinner, the mortars began to fall.

A barrage of more than 40 rounds hit the grounds in rapid succession -- some counted as many as 100 explosions. As guards and detainees scrambled for cover, two car bombs exploded outside, punching a hole in the walls of the massive prison compound.

More than 50 gunmen wearing tribal robes then entered the grounds, wielding pistols, AK-47s, and hand grenades. They had been on the road and in nearby villages, waiting to storm the facility. The power was cut, and the detainees broke out in cries of "God is great."  

The gunmen opened fire on any officer they saw. "The prisoners rioted. Some burned mattresses and clothes, others had stored homemade explosives to hurl at the guards. The infiltrators handed weapons to their jailed comrades. There was screaming and chaos," one of the guards at Abu Ghraib recalled. "We were surrounded."

When the assault ended, 71 prisoners were dead but hundreds of hardened militants had been freed in a stunning attack by al Qaeda's local subsidiary. The exact number is still unclear: The Iraqi government estimated anywhere from 300 to more than 850 detainees, including some arrested by U.S. forces years ago, had been busted out. The fact that the Iraqi security apparatus still does not know exactly how many militants escaped is a stunning admission of incompetence -- and a testament to how badly it was knocked off balance by the assault.

It's not just this one prison break -- there are signs that militants are gaining momentum across the country. Iraq just witnessed its deadliest month since the end of its civil war in 2008: The United Nations announced last week that 1,057 Iraqis had been killed in July.

Al Qaeda's assaults are also becoming more sophisticated. The July 21 attack was coordinated with an assault on Taji Prison, the other main detention facility just north of Baghdad, though no detainees were freed there. Militants have also grown expert at staging coordinated car bombings -- like the wave of attacks on July 29, when 15 car bombs struck Shiite neighborhoods across the country, killing at least 50 people and injuring over 1,000.

The Abu Ghraib prison break was not only a counterterrorism disaster, it laid bare Iraq's political dysfunction. Al Qaeda in Iraq has dashed the hopes of U.S. and Iraqi officials who banked that the 2007-2008 "surge" destroyed the movement, taking advantage of the country's poisonous sectarian politics to regain its strength. Sen. John McCain blamed America's failure to leave a residual U.S. force in the country for the attack. "We won the peace and lost the war. It is really tragic," he said. "And those people who are out of Abu Ghraib now, they are heading right to Syria."

Indeed, Syria's descent into civil war has bolstered al Qaeda's fortunes in the region. The group now identifies itself as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, in a nod to the fact that its cross-border ambitions stretch from Damascus to Baghdad. While al Qaeda has yet to deploy fighters from Syria for attacks in Iraq, according to a former insurgent, some Syrian jihadists have fled into Iraq and received weapons from Sunni tribes.

In addition to using the Syrian conflict to bolster its reputation among disaffected Sunnis, al Qaeda has sought to recruit supporters by exploiting missteps by Iraq's Shiite-led government.   In its statement claiming responsibility for the jail break, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant said their operation was carried out as reprisal for the shooting of peaceful Sunni protestors in the northern city of Hawija in April, where security forces killed more than 50 mostly unarmed Sunni protesters.

Meanwhile, the Abu Ghraib prison break debacle has sowed dissension among Iraq's political elite, as members of the ruling class blamed each other for the fiasco.

The rancor started at the top. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accused a key political partner and rival, Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's followers, who make up a large number of the rank-and-file prison guards in Iraq's penitentiary system, of assisting al Qaeda. "What happened in Abu Ghraib prison was the guards who were inside the prison, are connected to these militias, and it was they who colluded and it was they who opened the doors," Maliki said. The Sadr movement, which holds several government ministries, responded with their own statement mocking the prime minister for "losing his mind."

In turn, Justice Minister Hassan Shimmari blamed the security forces for assisting the prison break. "I had the impression that there was a collusion," Shimmari said on television, saying checkpoints around the prison had been abandoned. "The 120 policemen responsible for this area all disappeared except for an officer and two cops."

Admission after admission has come out in the local media: 200 Sunni prisoners, some of them from al Qaeda, had been transferred to Abu Ghraib just days before the escape; prisoners had easy access to cell phones, so were able to communicate with the prison break plotters in the countdown to the escape. The attack has demoralized Iraqis. Shiite religious clerics have publicly questioned the competence of the security forces and drubbed the government for letting down the families of terror attack victims. "As the criminals return, people will feel depression, frustration, fear and panic," said Sheikh Abdel Mehdi Karbalai, a senior representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most revered Shiite religious figure in Iraq.

Meanwhile, the surviving guards are angry that they are being treated as accomplices rather than the victims. The justice minister and deputy minister visited them shortly after the attack, in the middle of the night, and continued pointing fingers. "They were blaming us for what happened," one of the guards said.

The guard, however, believes that the corruption that allowed such a disaster reaches much higher up the Iraqi political system. "We are under the impression that some elements from the government and the security troops helped the gunmen," the guard said. "How could so many prisoners disappear within minutes after they left the prison?"

For al Qaeda, the political infighting was icing on the cake of an immensely successful operation. The terror group boasted about the operation in a lengthy statement, bragging that it had "freed the lions" from the "Safaween," or Safavids, a derogatory term for Shiites.

The guards were stunned at the brutality of the assault. One guard pretended to be dead, lying in a pile of his fellow guards' corpses. An al Qaeda fighter was checking the bodies for the living, executing anyone who was still breathing. The guard, who had been shot in the leg, covered himself in blood. A fighter tried to kick his body over, but gave up and moved on. "Thank God, I am still alive," the guard said.

Another guard recalled watching a colleague call out to the shooters: "I am from Abu Ghraib, my name is Othman Omar," a Sunni name. The gunmen assured him he would be safe if he came out, since he belonged to their sect -- when he approached, they shot him dead. Gunmen held one policeman at gunpoint and took his pistol and badge, telling another fighter, "We can use this." Al Qaeda claims they killed more than 100 security forces in the raid; official Iraqi government figures put the number at 10.

The Abu Ghraib prison break may be over, but its effects will reverberate around Iraq and the broader region for many months to come. The men who carried it out are still on the loose, ready to carry out more bombings, stronger than ever. The guards, meanwhile, marveled at the jihadists' confidence and cool.

"They seemed not to be in a rush, they were doing what they wanted, with no confusion," one guard said. "They knew what to do."

WATHIQ KHUZAIE/AFP/Getty Images