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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- Areas In Southern Iraq Insecure, Unstable Amid Security Vacuum

Near the Iraqi Border, Northern Kuwait; 24 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel, who has been based in Kuwait City, crossed the Kuwaiti border into the southern Iraqi village of Safwan over the weekend, in the wake of invading U.S. and British troops. Last night, however, he was forced to evacuate the town because of a suspected attack on his encampment. He filed this report this morning from southern Iraq.

QUESTION: Can you explain what happened to you overnight?

RECKNAGEL: The security vacuum in southern Iraq caused by the rapid advance of allied forces forced almost all journalists who are not embedded with the military to withdraw from the country today. The journalists, some 100 in number, returned across the Kuwaiti border in a long convoy after multiple security threats and continued fighting in major southern cities made it impossible to continue work.

The security alarms began at dusk last night when British forces ordered the immediate evacuation of journalists camped near a British position on the outskirts of Safwan, close by the Iraqi border. The soldiers ordered us to break camp on five minutes' notice after receiving reports that some 10 supporters of Iraq's ruling Ba'ath Party were preparing an attack on our encampment. They directed us to drive without lights westward from Safwan 20 kilometers into the desert. There, we spent six hours sheltering under a highway overpass, which was manned by a British unit guarding the route for military convoys.

The guard unit was, itself, on full alert after a separate threat caused by the presence of an Iraqi military [Fedayeen] squad detected in their sector. We were ordered to wear flak jackets and helmets and take cover in a roadside ditch if fighting broke out. Later, we were sent another 20 kilometers further west, deep into the Rumaila oil fields to an area fully under the control of coalition forces.

QUESTION: What happened after you tried to return to Safwan?

RECKNAGEL: On returning to Safwan early this morning, reporters learned that the area remained insecure and [we] decided to return, en masse, to Kuwait until conditions improve. The events underline the fact that as coalition forces advance rapidly north toward Baghdad, they are securing highways for military supply transports, but not establishing their authority in the towns along the way.

People in Safwan told us earlier that Iraqi police left the town, along with government officials, when U.S. troops attacked from Kuwait four days ago, and that no new local authority has been established to fill the security vacuum caused by their flight. At the same time, access to major cities such as Basra and the port of Umm Qasr continues to be blocked as allied forces encounter pockets of resistance.

Journalists' access to cities further north is hindered by bands of armed civilians, spotted near roadways, whose identity and allegiances are unknown.