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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- Basra Welcomes British Troops But Awaits Restoration Of Security

  • Charles Recknagel

On the first full day of Basra's occupation by British troops yesterday, the population was largely welcoming the change but wondering when the soldiers will restore order and security. Our correspondent also visited the villa where Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as "Chemical Ali," was reportedly killed by allied bombs. He quotes neighbors as saying 13 other people were also killed in the bombing, most of them members of the family of the director of Basra's teaching hospital. In Basra, RFE/RL's Charles Recknagel reports.

Basra, Iraq; 9 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Driving around Basra, I see many people welcoming the British troops. Large crowds gather around the British tanks, stationed at key intersections. And on one tank, passersby have put flowers on the turret. People ask the soldiers for water, food, and cigarettes, and the mood is relaxed and friendly.

On main boulevards and residential districts a few shops have reopened and street vendors are back in operation. People crowd the sidewalks as on any normal day, and women and children watch from balconies, some even venturing into the streets.

Those signs of normal life are in sharp contrast to 7 April, when British troops first entered the city after surrounding and isolating it for almost two weeks. Amid the British advance into town, there was widespread looting of public buildings, including the university and several ministries. Those looters took everything from furniture to sheet metal and electrical wiring. The looters, however, did not attack private shops.

Now, British soldiers have taken over the sprawling presidential palace and a military base. They have also taken over the headquarters of the 3rd Iraqi Intelligence Service, which was battered by allied bombing. The presence of British armor in the palace and in the intelligence compound suggests the British are establishing a long-term downtown presence.

British forces yesterday also said they have begun to establish the country's first postwar administration, granting a local village elder power to set up an administrative committee representing the groups in the region.

But the British --- who also have begun foot patrols in some parts of the city -- have yet to secure key facilities, such as the central hospital, amid widespread public concern they will be looted. Doctors at the hospital told RFE/RL that a British medical unit had briefly guarded the main gate yesterday morning but that they left with no explanation of when they might be back.

The doctors already say they have chased looters from the 650-bed hospital many times in the past 24 hours. The police and security services have fled the city and so far even low-ranking traffic patrolmen have not returned to duty.

As the British deploy through the city, many people say they feel Basra remains a power vacuum where looters are free to steal. They told me, "The British say they came for peace, but still there is no peace." They say the most urgent need is for security and after that for restoring water and electric services.

Central districts receive water for just a few hours a day, and most people need to use crude hand pumps to suck the water up from the pipes. Many worry about the cleanliness of drinking water and the outbreak of disease. People in some districts resort to using polluted canal water for washing. A main pumping station that broke last week, prompting fears of a humanitarian crisis, was partially fixed by the International Committee of the Red Cross as fighting was still going on.

Still, water is in such short supply now that at the central hospital doctors are only doing lifesaving operations while using well water for the operating theater.

Despite days of sporadic fighting before the city fell, few buildings in Basra show signs of battle. A Ba'ath Party headquarters and a nearby intelligence facility were destroyed by precision bombs, but most other facilities are intact.

But the precision bombing has not been without civilian casualties.

I visited the villa where Ali Hassan al-Majid, the high-ranking associate of Saddam Hussein known as "Chemical Ali," was reportedly killed by allied bombs over the weekend. The bombing of the villa also destroyed parts of two neighboring houses.

Neighbors say 13 people were killed in the bombing of the villa, most of them belonging to the family of the director of Basra's teaching hospital. The neighbors also say they cannot confirm if Ali -- known as "Chemical Ali" for his use of chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s -- was in the villa during the attack. They say the family that owns the house had been moved out a few days earlier by unknown people -- most likely intelligence agents -- who ordered them to make way for important officials.

As one angry neighbor told me, "If you want to kill people, don't kill everyone around." Then, with no more time to talk, he placed a gerry can in his car and drove off, saying he was going to drive around the city in search of clean water for his family.

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