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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- Scenes Of Frenzy, Violence As Aid Delivered To Safwan

  • Charles Recknagel

The security vacuum left in the wake of advancing U.S. and British troops has made it difficult for aid organizations to deliver humanitarian supplies to Iraqis in the south of the country. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel is in the Iraqi border town of Safwan and files this report on scenes of a violent free-for-all as aid agencies from Kuwait attempted today to deliver food and water to the town's beleaguered citizens.

Safwan, Iraq; 28 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- At the southern Iraqi border town of Safwan, a Kuwaiti effort to distribute food and water rations today turned into scenes of frenzied looting.

Mobs of villagers ransacked the aid trucks to throw out boxes containing water and food to their friends and relatives in a sometimes violent free-for-all. The disorder forced the trucks to flee, still partly loaded, to the Kuwaiti border, where border guards fired shots in the air to scare away men still clinging to the vehicles.

The men continued to throw out goods to pickup trucks following close behind in last-minute efforts to hoard the goods. The distribution was the second in Safwan in three days and repeated the chaos of the first on 26 March.

This time, many of the young men in the crowd came armed with pointed sticks to guard what they took from the trucks. Their presence guaranteed that older or weaker men and women got just one box, at best, or nothing at all.

One man in the crowd told me he has a family of five children but was unable to withstand the jostling beside the trucks long enough to get something for them. He said he could not understand why the Kuwaiti aid is not being distributed using the rationing system -- long-established in Iraq -- for humanitarian aid under the UN's oil-for-food program. Under that program, suspended by the UN because of the war, every Iraqi family has a ration card showing the number of its members and their ages.

The individual food boxes -- delivered today in some eight, fully packed trailer trucks -- contain enough food and water to supply a family of six for a week. The aid was organized by the Kuwaiti Red Crescent Society, using products purchased by numerous Kuwaiti charitable agencies and private organizations.

In the crowd, some people told me that Safwan is stable enough to allow an orderly aid distribution after U.S. troops arrived there earlier this week. They said while allied troops have restricted their control of the town only to securing the main highway for military convoys, authority in the town of 10,000 people is itself reverting to traditional village leaders.

The police and local government fled with Iraqi forces ahead of the allied advance.

One Safwan man, Falla Bader, said members of Iraq's ruling Ba'ath Party are now largely staying in their homes in the town to avoid the allied presence. But he also said regime loyalists continue to pose a menace to residents and to allied soldiers.

He said he had seen Iraqi intelligence agents distribute hand grenades to several men early this morning, with instructions to throw them into the crowds at aid-distribution points. That did not happen, but he said the only way to fully secure the town is for allied troops to establish posts in the neighborhoods themselves.

The disorder at today's aid distribution highlights the flux in which most of the few towns in southern Iraq that have been taken by allied troops still remain, a week into the war. The only town fully under allied control is the key port of Umm Qasr, a short drive to the west and the planned main entry point for international humanitarian supplies to Iraq.

U.S. and British forces are counting on aid supplies to win the loyalty of a population still caught between two orders -- the old and the potential new -- and which still remembers how U.S. troops came this far in 1991 at the end of the Gulf War. They withdrew shortly afterwards and, in the wake of their withdrawal, Saddam's forces squashed an uprising by many of the south's Shia residents, killing thousands before restoring his rule.