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Iraq: U.S.-Led Forces Advance Northward, But Leave Security Vacuum

As U.S. and British forces advance on Baghdad and other key cities, they have yet to stop and secure towns in the rear or begin the process of establishing a new order. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel visited one such town this week before security concerns forced him to leave.

Safwan, Iraq; 25 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It is hard to describe the mood in southern Iraqi towns occupied by U.S.-led forces, but tense and cautious -- not celebratory -- may be the best description.

In Safwan, the first town along one of the main U.S. supply routes north from Kuwait, U.S. and British troops draw a crowd wherever they set up mobile guard posts along the main street. The guard posts are strictly to secure the safety of the convoys carrying tanks, ammunition, food, and other supplies to troops advancing on Baghdad, Basra, and other key Iraqi cities.

At the guard posts, the U.S. and British soldiers -- who are in full battle gear -- do not move far from their armored vehicles as they watch the roadway. But many people come from elsewhere in the town to look at the soldiers, and they seem to have mixed emotions about the soldiers' presence.

As the military convoys roar past, laden with supplies, the townspeople say they don't understand why the vehicles never stop to help them. The town has been without electricity since it was taken almost a week ago by U.S.-led forces after the police fled their posts along with retreating Iraqi soldiers.

Telephone service throughout the country also was cut as the war began, reportedly on orders from the Baghdad government.

One man in Safwan said the town now has no local administration, no medicine in the clinics and -- due to hoarding -- almost no food left in the shops. "We need electricity and water -- just that," he said. "They cut it off. We don't know who cut the electricity and water two days ago. We have some supplies [of stockpiled] water. We feel safe when the supporters of America and Britain come here."

But the man is cautious as he speaks to reporters, waving off requests for his name. His dismissive gestures give the impression that he is not confident that he can now speak freely to foreigners -- despite the massive amounts of U.S. and British weaponry passing through his town.

Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein remains in power in Baghdad, and the man in Safwan seems to fear that if he speaks too long or says too much, he could still be punished later, should the invading outside forces disappear as suddenly as they arrived.

The men in the crowds who do speak without fear are the ones who criticize or are openly hostile to the U.S. and British soldiers. One man -- who gives his name without hesitation as Kathem Sajed -- said the foreigners are a curse, not a blessing, for him and for all those clustered around him.

He said several people were killed when U.S.-led forces destroyed buildings on the edge of Safwan as they attacked last week. One man in the crowd said he lost a nephew in the invasion.

Sajed also threatened that if the U.S.-led forces do not help the local people within three days, the people will throw them out. His sentences were interrupted and finished by a second man who shares his views. "We will wait for three days, and you know us Iraqis. Even if we face an immense army, we will make suicide attacks upon them and throw them out," he said.

Sajed said life was better before the invasion. "[It was] good, everything was good," he said. "For the past six months, Saddam spoiled us. There was food, medicine. Everything was available."

It is not clear to what extent Sajed speaks for the crowd, but no one contradicts him. Another man in Safwan told our correspondent privately that Saddam's intelligence agents join crowds to monitor what people say and perhaps to seize opportunities to express hostility to foreigners.

Such information is impossible to verify but suggests that, beyond the main highways secured by U.S. and British troops, and the flight of uniformed Iraqi soldiers and police, little in the town's old order has yet changed.

Recently, a Norwegian reporter who visited Safwan's clinic to try to verify reports that doctors, too, had fled was himself chased away by a man waving a gun. That was before journalists in southern Iraq who were not "embedded" with military units had to abandon working in the area altogether yesterday amid urgent security concerns.

British forces evacuated journalists camped near a guard post two days ago after intelligence reports that 10 local members of Iraq's ruling Ba'ath Party were preparing to attack the encampment overnight. Later, British soldiers told our correspondent that a small group of men armed with automatic weapons and rocket launchers had been spotted in Safwan and were believed to be preparing an attack on the journalists or on a convoy.

The presence of the armed men caused U.S.-led forces to stop the flood of convoys across the border northward through Safwan for some 12 hours before the road was reopened yesterday. At the same time, British forces on another major supply highway going west of Safwan stopped convoys for several hours after members of Saddam's Fedayeen -- members of an elite Iraqi military unit pledged to fight to the death for the regime -- were spotted in their sector.

The security alarms and highway closures are a measure of how much U.S. and British forces have yet to do to occupy and pacify rear areas as they advance on key cities. Advancing forces are reported to have bypassed some towns altogether by detouring into the desert in order to establish supply lines that do not need to be protected in populated areas.

Similarly, the security vacuum in rear areas is making it impossible for humanitarian aid agencies to begin providing aid to civilians.

An official with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kuwait City, Tamara al-Rifai, told reporters that U.S. forces have refused requests during the last three days to send in evaluation teams to assess local needs.

The refusal due to security considerations comes as fighting around Basra has cut off clean water supplies for some 60 percent of the city's 1.2 million inhabitants. U.S.-led forces have won military control over Basra by placing a screening force around it but have yet to enter the city as they continue to encounter pockets of resistance.

Basra's main water-treatment plant has been out of service since 21 March and the city lacks electricity. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters yesterday: "I think that urgent measures should be taken to restore electricity and water to the population. A city of that size cannot afford to go without electricity and water for long."

U.S. President George W. Bush said on 23 March that he expects aid to begin moving into Iraq within 36 hours. The U.S. military has said it will ensure the early humanitarian needs of Iraqis are met.