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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- Umm Qasr Aid Delayed As Port Security Remains In Question

  • Charles Recknagel

RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel is in northern Kuwait, near the Iraqi border. He reports on efforts now under way to resume normal work in Iraq's key port city, Umm Qasr -- including the crucial unloading of humanitarian aid.

Northern Kuwait, Near the Iraqi Border; 27 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- With Iraq's only major Persian Gulf port, Umm Qasr, now fully in British hands, efforts are under way to get people back to work so the town can be the entry point for large-scale deliveries of aid by sea.

British officers in Kuwait say that dockworkers were ready to begin returning to work today, in preparation for the arrival of the first seaborne shipment of humanitarian aid on the British naval vessel "Sir Galahad."

The vessel, which was originally expected to unload at Umm Qasr today, is waiting offshore with hundreds of tons of food, medicine, blankets, and water. Reuters cites a naval spokesman as saying mines were found near Umm Qasr overnight, and that further checks were necessary before it would be safe to dock. The "Sir Galahad" is now expected to arrive only tomorrow. Aid deliveries from Kuwait by truck have also been hampered by sandstorms in the area.

British Gulf forces commander Air Marshal Brian Burridge, speaking today at a U.S. Central Command briefing at Camp Sayliyah, Qatar, said that deliveries of humanitarian aid have been slowed by threats of sabotage by the Iraqi regime.

"Make no mistake, the threat is very real. Last night U.K. mine hunters discovered and then detonated two mines outside the swept shipping channel. This proves beyond doubt that Saddam's regime has attempted to stop essential stores and humanitarian supplies from being delivered from this own people," Burridge said.

But a return to normalcy still appears to be under way in Umm Qasr. Major Martin Grixoni, of the Royal Marines, told reporters on the Kuwait border just across from the Iraqi port city yesterday that some private companies in the city will resume work. He also said a pipe factory will restart production today for the first time since U.S. and British forces entered Iraq last week.

Allied soldiers took control of Umm Qasr three days ago after encountering stiffer-than-expected resistance. British officials say the allies were opposed by 500 to 600 Iraqi soldiers, some of whom later surrendered. One U.S. Marine was killed in the fighting.

Grixoni, who has been in the port the past four days, said there was substantial looting of buildings during or after the battle, including the hotel now serving as a British forces residence. The hotel was looted of beds and toilets, as police left with Iraqi soldiers abandoning the town.

Grixoni said the looting only fully ended yesterday, as British troops began fanning out from the port area to other parts of town.

The British officer said there have been no revenge killings among Umm Qasr's some 40,000 residents since control of the town changed hands. He said most residents welcome the allied soldiers, but a substantial percent remain wary and a small portion, in the dozens of people, are hostile.

He estimates at least half the population has weapons, and U.S. and British soldiers have begun asking them to voluntarily disarm by leaving their guns in the street.

Grixoni said British soldiers are not removing pictures of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein partly to not appear as conquerors, and partly because of the difficulty. Many posters are building-size wall murals.

He also said some residents appear reluctant to change the symbols of power too quickly, including one doctor in the city's hospital, who said he would keep a portrait of Saddam on his office wall until he was genuinely convinced the regime is dead.

Meanwhile, allied efforts to clear the port's waters of mines continue with the help of two bomb-detecting dolphins helicoptered in by U.S. forces on 25 March.

Handlers say the dolphins are highly efficient at their work, but that it remains to be seen whether local dolphins, who are territorial, will accept their presence or try to chase them away.