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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- Residents Of Southern Towns Who Fled To Basra Begin Trickling Home

As allied forces surround Basra, some of the people inside the city are coming out. RFE/RL talked with some of them just south of Basra near the town of Zubayr, which is largely secured by British forces. Many said they had originally fled north to Basra to escape from fighting as the war began. Now they are returning home, despite the fact their homes are under allied control.

Zubayr, Iraq; 30 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi civilians who fled the southern towns of Umm Qasr and Safwan at the start of the war to take refuge in Basra are now trickling homeward again.

Our correspondent encountered dozens of residents of both towns as they made their way by car two days ago from Basra back to Umm Qasr and Safwan, which are close by the Kuwaiti border and now well behind the allied advance.

The returning residents made up a large part of a traffic jam of cars trying to cross a British checkpoint at Zubayr, a town a dozen kilometers southeast of Basra. Many of the cars were taxis which had been shuttling people southward all day. Others were private cars.

The drivers and passengers at the checkpoint did not speak freely with reporters, because every interview attracted a large crowd of onlookers from nearby Zubayr, many of whom were anxious themselves for news about Basra and eager to overhear everything being said.

Such crowds have a dampening effect on interviews in Iraq because nobody knows who in the sea of faces may be an Iraqi government agent noting what people say in order to exact retribution later. At the same time, onlookers sometimes comment aloud that journalists may be allied intelligence agents, suggesting that anyone giving too much information may find himself detained and interrogated by allied troops later.

Still, some drivers did talk guardedly with us. Many said they were leaving Basra voluntarily and unimpeded by Iraqi forces so that they now could go back to their hometowns -- despite the fact that their towns are now in coalition hands.

One man said that he and the five women and children with him had fled fighting in Umm Qasr a week ago to take shelter in Basra. Now that they had heard it was safe to return home, they were eager to do so.

"There are not a lot of people leaving Basra. We are from Umm Qasr. We escaped Umm Qasr when the attacks began and now that we know that it is safe back there we are going back to where we live," he said.

Umm Qasr is fully under the control of British soldiers who are reported to have begun house-to-house searches for some top members of the ruling Ba'ath Party. In Safwan, allied forces have secured the highway that cuts through the town for supply convoys but have not extended their control into the neighborhoods.

When another man was asked if he felt comfortable going from a Baghdad-controlled area to an allied-secured one, he smiled at the question. He answered that Iraqis are used to such changes and it causes no one any problems. "This is not our first war," he said.

Others in the line of returning cars were insistent that they were not leaving Basra out of any concern for the safety situation in that city, which is now ringed by allied forces. They said the mood inside Basra is calm despite periodic allied bombing of key targets.

One man, an agricultural specialist who asked to remain anonymous, said he does not feel personally engaged in the war and hopes only that it spares civilians. Asked to sit in his car and speak quietly into the microphone slightly apart from the listening crowd, he said he regards the fight for Basra as between the U.S. and Saddam's regime alone.

"Everybody is looking for a better future, of course, and they are saying let the Americans and the Iraqi forces fight between each other, we are not a part of that fight. So [people in Basra] have bunkers and everything and they don't intend to fight the Americans, or [Saddam's forces]. They say let both armies fight and we will stay away from this," he said.

He also said that the people of Basra "would love to meet the Americans with flowers." But he said they are afraid that the Americans will treat them the same way as they did in 1991.

In 1991, U.S. forces advanced beyond Kuwait and into southern Iraq to conclude the Gulf War. But they withdrew soon afterward amid a rebellion in Shia-populated southern Iraq against the regime of Saddam Hussein. In the wake of the U.S. withdrawal, Baghdad restored its control through a military crackdown that killed several thousand people.

The interviews with the returning Umm Qasr and Safwan residents came just hours after British officers near Basra told reporters that Iraqi units inside the city had fired mortar rounds at people leaving the city to discourage departures. None of those in the cars mentioned such an incident. However, one man said that a shell fired by Iraqi forces at British tank positions outside the city had fallen amid civilians.