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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- Our Correspondent In Umm Qasr Finds Security, Shy Residents, And A Smiling Saddam

  • Charles Recknagel

RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel is in the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr and filed this report around 11:00 a.m. Prague time today.

Question: Where are you?

Recknagel: I am in Umm Qasr, Iraq's southern port and the first town fully under the control of U.S. and British forces. The outskirts of the town are approachable only through British Army checkpoints, where soldiers stop all vehicles to check for weapons. British Sergeant Terry Connoly told me at one checkpoint that his men have found no weapons being carried in or out of town in the four days since allied forces took the port.

Traffic is normal, with some 140 people passing through the checkpoint in 10 minutes' time. Just behind the checkpoint, which is on the western side of town, British forces have set up a regional center for collecting POWs. The size of the camp and a long string of civilian buses nearby used to transport the POWs suggest that hundreds of men have been received here since the allied invasion of Iraq began a week ago.

The vehicles, pressed into service by the allies, are Iraqi intercity transport buses, battered and beaten and showing the effects of 12 years of sanctions on the country. At the old port area, security is in the hands of U.S. troops, who say things have been quiet, with no incidents of shooting since fighting ended earlier this week.

Question: Can you describe the flavor of the city?

Recknagel: At the entrance to the port is a large colored-tile mural of Saddam Hussein, looking youthful and smiling in a black business suit. His hands rest easily on the back of a chair. Nearby, shops leading to the old port area have been looted, with the windows and doors broken. The looting, which broke out as police left the town with the Iraqi forces, fully stopped only yesterday as U.S. and British forces extended their control beyond the key dock areas and into the town itself.

Question: What is the mood of the people in the city?

Recknagel: People I have passed entering town often wave to our press cars but, so far, have avoided direct answers to the questions most on reporters' minds: "What do they think about the fall -- here at least -- of Saddam's regime?" Asked that, one middle-aged man simply shrugged in a gesture requesting the reporter's understanding. Perhaps he meant to say it is too early to commit himself on political questions like that, just in case the allies, one day, disappear as suddenly as they arrived.