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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- New Allied Administration Receives Cautious Welcome In Umm Qasr

The southern port of Umm Qasr is the first and so far only Iraqi town to be fully secured by allied forces after a week of war. Now, with fighting in the port over for several days, the town is beginning to return to normal life but under a new administration: that of British forces, rather than the regime of Saddam Hussein. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel was recently in Umm Qasr and files this report on the mood in the streets.

Umm Qasr, 28 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Apart from the large numbers of British Army vehicles moving along the main streets and posted on neighborhood corners, Umm Qasr looks at first glance very much like a place still under Saddam Hussein's control.

The Iraqi president's picture stands at the entrance to the port facilities and next to some of the largest buildings, most often in the form of a color-tile mural the size of a small house. Each mural is set in a still bigger, tombstone-like frame rising up like a giant concrete road marker splashing a bit of color over an otherwise drab town.

Over here, Hussein is smiling and youthful in a black business suit. Over there, he is in his trademark homburg hat, firing a hunting rifle into the air. And he always looks vigorous, likeable, and fully in charge.

But since British forces took full control of Umm Qasr four days ago -- after first battling with the Iraqi Army and later an infiltration of snipers -- the port has become the first and only town in southern Iraq completely under allied control.

Elsewhere, U.S. and British forces have secured only main roads for convoys supplying troops advancing toward Baghdad.

Here, the British have fanned out through the town of 40,000 people to begin the process of restoring public services and security. Those are the very first steps in the long and difficult task the allies have set for themselves of reconstructing Iraq with a new, post-Hussein order.

In front of the British Army headquarters in the center of town, a small crowd of men is making the first efforts to meet the new administrators. The men range from highly educated professionals to distraught-looking laborers and small boys. Each man seems to have something personal he wants to say to the British officers who are coming and going in vehicles loaded with heavily armed soldiers.

One man, who identified himself only as Muhammad and said he is a port engineer, said he wants to ask the British "to stop shooting looters." Since Iraqi troops and government police abandoned the town earlier this week, there have been widespread break-ins at shops, office buildings, and factories by people stealing furniture and machinery.

The British headquarters itself is in a port office building and former Iraqi intelligence-service hotel that was looted of all its beds and toilets before the soldiers finally ended the looting two days ago through numerous arrests.

Muhammad told me he can't understand why the soldiers are shooting the looters -- a charge the British officers strongly deny. "If [someone] wants to steal an air conditioner, that is a mistake but don't kill him -- O.K.? Catch him. In the last days, those killed include one girl 16 years old, one 32-year-old, and one 45-year-old. Why do [the British] want to do that? If you want to catch someone, just talk to anyone -- we'll catch him. But [don't do things this way], because everyone is afraid," Muhammad said.

Muhammad's insistence that looters have been shot by the soldiers, despite the officers' assurances to the contrary, underlines the tough challenge both sides will face in bridging the trust and information gap in the days ahead.

The educated men, several of whom speak English, are beginning that process now by helping the others in the crowd communicate with the officers.

One poorly dressed man is highly emotional as he asks for information about a relative who disappeared during the fighting. After one officer, whose insignia says "Civil Affairs," patiently explained how to seek such information at the POW camp the British have set up outside of town, the distraught man profusely thanked him and the new self-appointed community leaders.

The Civil Affairs officer, Captain John Thompson, said that some of the missing people may have been taken prisoner in the fighting while others may have been arrested as looters. He said that relatives looking for them fear they will never hear about them again -- as often happened under Hussein's regime. "Some are in POW camps, and some people have been arrested. And what [townspeople] have had concerns about in the past is that if anyone was arrested in the past, they may have disappeared. If anyone has been arrested in the last few days, it may have been because of looting. A lot of looting was going on yesterday. They may have been arrested for that and been held, so they can be cleared. Once they are cleared, they will be released," Thompson said.

But even as Thompson seeks to reassure the men around him by his accessibility, only a few in the crowd are ready to commit entirely to the new order of things.

One man, a professional teacher of English, took what many still perceive as a serious risk by roundly criticizing Saddam Hussein. He asked reporters not to give his name as he delivered a blistering summary of the ruling Ba'ath Party's records: "You should know that since Saddam Hussein came with his party in 1968, everything has been changed for the worse. We have nothing good. Everything is expensive except death and except for a man's life."

The teacher said that the town particularly suffered in 1999 in a crackdown by Hussein's forces on Shia Muslim activists. The crackdown came as Shias, who make up Iraq's largest community and live mostly in the south, protested the assassination of Ayatollah Muhammad Sadek al-Sadr, presumably by Hussein's agents, in Najaf the same year.

Al-Sadr was regarded by many as a moderate who sought to keep up Shia morale by defying government bans on large Shia gatherings for Friday prayers -- something prohibited by Baghdad as a potential catalyst for unrest.

None of the other English-speaking men in the crowd contradicted the teacher's public criticism of Hussein, but few are willing to follow his example. Port engineer Muhammad told a reporter who asked him how he feels about the change of administration in Umm Qasr that it is still too early to answer dangerous political questions. He laughed, telling the reporter to ask him again after some time had passed: "Please, don't ask me this question, because maybe I will [an] answer [to] this question in one week. In one week or two weeks, I will tell you what I feel. But now, I feel better."

The engineer's caution about speaking his mind freely about Hussein's regime suggests that he and other townspeople are still reeling from the suddenness of the allied invasion of Iraq and may feel that the outsiders could one day disappear as quickly as they appeared.

But it may also suggest a wait-and-see attitude toward the newcomers themselves regarding their own intentions. Muhammad said he thinks the U.S. and British armies should only remain in Iraq for a few months. After that, he said, they must leave or they will be seen as conquerors and face hostility even from people now welcoming them.

The generally positive mood in Umm Qasr toward the British troops controlling the town -- and toward a small contingent of U.S. Marines guarding the port -- contrasts sharply with the tense and suspicious mood of residents in another Iraqi border town, Safwan, just a short drive to the west.

There, residents watch an endless stream of convoys carrying tanks, ammunition, and other supplies into Baghdad through Kuwait along the town's main road, which has been secured by British and U.S. troops. But the troops have not extended their control beyond the supply route, leaving the town's old order under the Ba'ath Party apparently unchanged despite the flight of the Iraqi Army and police.

A delivery of water and food to Safwan by the Kuwaiti government two days ago sparked a melee, as hundreds of people jostled aid workers and security men to get to the packages. Under the cover of the crowd, some townspeople shouted out slogans in support of Hussein despite the military convoys going down the road.