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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- Many Military Convoys, But Few Journalists, Crossing Iraqi Border

RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel is in northern Kuwait across the border from the Iraqi town of Safwan. In this Desert Dispatch filed this morning, Recknagel talks about the vast supply lines feeding U.S. and British troops in Iraq, the difficulties for independent journalists in reporting on the situation in southern Iraq, and how well-informed the Iraqi people he has encountered are about what is happening in their country.

Near the Iraqi border, northern Kuwait; 2 April 2003 (RFE/RL) --

Question: A big part of keeping an army operating inside Iraq is supplying it adequately. What can you tell us about how that is being done?

Recknagel: I'm at the Kuwait border along the main supply route into Iraq, and the quantity of material moving forward is just amazing. There are convoys after convoys arriving here at a marshalling yard, and some of these convoys are easily 100 vehicles long. They are mainly carrying fuel, water, ammunition, and food, although at times you also see things like shallow-water boats for patrolling coastal waters or perhaps Iraq's remaining marshland areas. The southern marshes, of course, could be a hideout for diehard Saddam loyalists. Another main supply route into Iraq is by sea through the recently secured port of Umm Qasr.

Question: The supply challenge is likely to grow as the allies bring in reinforcements. What can you tell us about that?

Recknagel: The quantities of material moving along this road underline the appetite of an allied army of some 100,000 soldiers already in Iraq, which is set to be reinforced by another 120,000 soldiers due to be deployed in the region in the weeks ahead. One of the big problems the allies are already facing is keeping these supply routes secure as the trucks go deeper into Iraq. There are repeated reports of infiltrations of Iraqi soldiers in civilian clothes into rear areas behind the allies' advance to wage a guerrilla war. These soldiers belong to Saddam's Fedayeen, an elite troop sworn to fight to the death for the regime.

Question: So how do the convoys protect themselves?

Recknagel: The convoys are protected to various degrees, according to where they are going or what they're carrying. In moving through sensitive areas, trucks can be interspersed with armored cars carrying machine guns, or even the trucks themselves may have machine guns mounted on their roofs. Interestingly, fuel-truck convoys are not accompanied by heavily armed escorts, probably because any fighting around them would risk enormous explosions if any of the trucks were hit, either by enemy or friendly fire. Inside Iraq, major supply routes are secured by allied forces using mobile guard posts consisting of tanks and armored cars.

Question: Has all this traffic of supply vehicles changed the look of the Kuwaiti border substantially over the course of the war?

Recknagel: It certainly has. Here, where I'm standing, U.S. Army engineers are busily building a giant, fenced-in parking area where convoys can be stationed and sorted out in various ways to make the traffic movements more efficient. Part of the old demilitarized-zone area on the Kuwaiti side of the border has been taken over by U.S. soldiers and converted into a military base, using many of the buildings that once headquartered UN border monitors. The turnover to U.S. forces coincides with the dramatic tightening of border security as Kuwait itself has deployed scores of tanks, plus infantry units, along the Iraqi frontier amid fears that Saddam's Fedayeen may also try to infiltrate the emirate. The net results for journalists who in past weeks have been able to hop across the border to report in southern Iraq is that today, independent movement across the border is almost impossible. The Kuwait-Iraq border has been officially closed to everybody since the 1990 Persian Gulf crisis.

Question: What's the impact of the border controls, especially for journalists reporting from southern Iraq?

Recknagel: There seem to be two things at work here. One is the army's understandable concern that it has to occupy a certain amount of its time with protecting journalists who are moving around freely inside areas that are sometimes only marginally secure. So we've had incidents where British Army units have had to evacuate journalists to safer areas inside southern Iraq. And there have also been incidents in more recent days in which British Army units have actually escorted independent journalists across the border, saying they are no longer in a position to provide them security. The security the British units had been providing was usually to let journalists overnight next to military camps, but many of the officers have told journalists that they think the presence of the press camps draws attention to their posts and strains their abilities to protect themselves, much less the journalists.

But many of the journalists here suspect that there may be a second thing at work here as well, and that is that the story that the journalists have been bringing out of southern Iraq does not coincide with the story that U.S. officials are telling. We are getting a picture of an Iraqi population with very mixed emotions about the military operations, a population who has fears for the security of its own families, people who also say that they fear that the allies may withdraw again, as they did in 1991, posing civilians with the possibility of a crackdown by Saddam Hussein's forces should they return to areas that have been liberated.

We are also meeting people who simply are angry at being invaded by a foreign force. Now that picture that we're getting is slightly different from the official Washington-London position, which is that U.S. troops are largely being welcomed by Iraqi civilians.

Question: Where are the Iraqi people getting their information about the war?

Recknagel: Well, it's hard to know, and it varies from city to city. For example, in Basra, the British claim to have successfully knocked out the radio and television. In Baghdad, the state radio and television apparently continue to function, despite being hit several times by allied bombing. So, I think many Iraqis continue to get their information through the regime's media channels. Those other sources, like Al-Jazeera, would be available only to people with satellite dishes, and satellite dishes are prohibited in Iraq.

Question: Do you find the people are well-informed about what's happening with the war around their country?

Recknagel: Well, I can't say I've got much of a sense of that. They certainly seem to be well-informed about events in their own areas, and they were well-informed about the general outlines of the war: the fact that Baghdad has not been taken, the fact that U.S. allies are advancing northward toward Baghdad.

Question: Only one aid ship, Britain's "Sir Galahad," has been able to dock at Umm Qasr because mines are still being cleared from the harbor. Can you update us on the status of humanitarian aid getting into Iraq?

Recknagel: We've been talking to some of the humanitarian agencies. The United Nations has sent in its first evaluation team. They should have completed their work yesterday and come out. But that evaluation effort, of course, precedes any large-scale deliveries and tells me that large-scale deliveries haven't begun yet. So any aid that is coming in now is either aid that was delivered by the "Sir Galahad" or is aid that the Kuwaiti government has periodically sent over into the border town of Safwan or aid that the British military has independently distributed in Umm Qasr.

Probably the most significant advance in terms of getting humanitarian aid into occupied areas is British success in linking a water pipe in Umm Qasr with a source just across the border in Kuwait, which is now delivering large quantities of drinking water into that port town.