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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- British Infantry Moves Into Basra Amid Iraqi Resistance

  • Charles Recknagel

RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel is on the southern outskirts of the Iraqi city of Basra, where large columns of British infantry today are moving into the city. British forces and Iraqi paramilitaries have waged bloody battles for control of the key southern city for many days.

Question: Can you describe what you're seeing?

Recknagel: I'm on the outskirts of Basra, maybe 4 kilometers out, and for the first time today we're seeing British infantry columns moving in the city in the wake of reports that the British have gotten control of most of the city. Up until this point, control of the city had seemed to mean that British soldiers had gone in with tanks and set up checkpoints even in the city center, but the soldiers were not leaving their tanks. That was the situation overnight. But this morning, two large infantry columns have moved into the city, including the ones I'm looking at now.

Question: Where are they headed?

Recknagel: It's not clear yet where they are going to take up their positions, but the column that I'm looking at now is easily 100 trucks long, each truck laden with soldiers on the backs of the trucks, all of them heavily armed with assault rifles and machine guns. They're going in with their backpacks strapped to the backs of the trucks, obviously intending to stay there overnight. This is not going to be a daylong incursion. They are clearly going in to seize control of parts of the city. Whether it's going to be an outlying neighborhood or even the center of the city is unclear because the British troops have encountered some resistance overnight, including three British soldiers who were killed in fighting with forces inside the city who remain loyal to Saddam Hussein.

Question: What's the mood of the soldiers?

Recknagel: They look like men who are heading into battle. They have grim faces. There is no waving to some children on the side of the street, who are waving at the soldiers. They are holding their rifles at the ready pointing at the roadside from the vehicles. They look like men who are going into battle.

Question: Have you encountered many civilians?

Recknagel: Yes, It's strange, even as this huge column of infantry moves into the city, there is very heavy traffic on the road, principally going into the city. There are taxis, minivans, pickup trucks, even trucks with water tanks on the back. It looks like normal Monday morning traffic going into the city. But at the same time, coming out of the city there is also heavy traffic, but not as heavy as ingoing. And some of the traffic going out of the city is looted material. We just saw a steamroller being driven out of the city with a large number of Iraqi men driving it and waving victoriously. Obviously, this is loot that they are taking to an outlying village.

Question: Have you seen or heard any fighting?

Recknagel: Last night we did, because as evening approached, apparently the British soldiers who at that point were still remaining inside their tanks came under fire and called in helicopter gunships to suppress the fire. That lasted for about 20 minutes.

Question: Have you seen evidence of humanitarian aid getting to the residents of Basra or Umm Qasr, farther to the south?

Recknagel: No, certainly in Basra, there is no humanitarian aid going in now because the humanitarian aid follows only after a city is declared secure. The humanitarian agencies are quite reluctant to go in until first they've gotten a security clearance from, in this case, British troops, and after they've sent their own security team in to make an evaluation. So I wouldn't expect any humanitarian aid of any sizeable quantities to move into Basra for some time ahead.

In Umm Qasr, the progress is also very slow. Umm Qasr was declared by the UN as a safe area for humanitarian workers only two days ago, so even in Umm Qasr we've not yet seen large-scale humanitarian-aid deliveries.