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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- Umm Qasr Warily Accepts Presence Of Foreign Troops, For Now

  • Charles Recknagel

Umm Qasr, Iraq; 27 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In Umm Qasr, Iraq's main port and the planned central point for humanitarian aid to enter the country, it is aid that is most on the minds of the town's 40,000 residents today.

RFE/RL spoke with a crowd of men who have gathered around the gates of one of the port's largest office buildings -- now a British Army headquarters. Some of them are well-educated, leading citizens of the town who have come to make contact with the allied forces and present their community's needs.

A port engineer who gives his name only as Muhammad says the most urgent concern is getting clean water. After that, he says, the community needs electricity to be restored and food supplies. He also says he has come to help families locate people who have gone missing in fighting four days ago or have been arrested by British forces cracking down on looting.

But the prominent men of the town are also concerned over what they say have been several killings of citizens by snipers since British soldiers took full control. The men say four young people -- including one teenage girl -- were shot dead while looting during the past three days or while going to the aid of those wounded. British officers say they know of no such sniper incidents.

Such conflicting claims illustrate the trust-and-information gap which will be the biggest challenge facing both sides in the days ahead.

One British officer, Captain John Thompson, a civil affairs specialist, says he welcomes working with the community leaders. After receiving instructions about how to locate his missing son in jail, an Iraqi man in the crowd thanks Thompson and the community leaders profusely.

The work of Thompson and others here marks the beginning of a difficult process -- administering Iraq -- that the allies have said they will undertake for months after Saddam Hussein is defeated and before a new government can be formed.

While the mood here is positive, one man tells me he does not want the allied forces to stay long. He says the U.S. and British armies should remain in the country only a few months. After that, he says, they must leave. Otherwise, they will face hostility, even from people who welcome Saddam's imminent fall now.