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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- Basra Remains In Iraqi Hands But Reports Of Possible Fedayeen Surrender

RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel arrived on 6 April on the southern outskirts of the Iraqi city of Basra, where some 40 British tanks and armored vehicles staged their biggest military incursion yet into the city. British forces and Iraqi paramilitaries have waged bloody battles for control of the key southern city for many days.

Basra, 6 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- This correspondent is on the southern outskirts of Basra, where British soldiers have adopted the strategy of isolating the city while apparently waiting for Baghdad to fall.

British tanks guard checkpoints outside Basra, the closest about 1 kilometer from the city. But the soldiers at the checkpoints remain inside the tanks, as they have periodically come under sniper fire. The policy, as one soldier told RFE/RL, is to maintain a British presence on the main roads into the city but not to try to secure smaller roads or neighborhoods.

The strategy appears to be a waiting game -- waiting until the fall of Baghdad, whenever that may occur, demoralizes remaining resistance in Basra to such an extent that the city of close to 2 million people can be taken without street fighting.

There are reports today that Iraqi defenders in the city, particularly the paramilitary Saddam Fedayeen, who are sworn to fight to the death for the regime, have sent out feelers regarding a surrender to the British. The message sent via a religious authority says the militiamen would surrender if they receive guarantees they would not be handed over to mob justice. That suggests the Fedayeen are increasingly facing a hostile population in Basra.

Here on the outskirts, people leaving the city confirm that Basra remains in the hands of the Iraqi Army, plus a variety of security forces including Iraqi intelligence, regular police, and the Fedayeen, who dress in civilian clothing.

A bus driver coming out of the city told RFE/RL people remain in fear of the security forces but are becoming increasingly bold in asking them not to cluster near their homes. The bus driver said, "We tell them to disperse elsewhere because the coalition forces will hit our homes."

It is impossible to judge how reliable such information is.

On the road out of Basra, there is a steady stream of people continuing to leave the city, but far fewer than last week. Some of those leaving are not carrying their own possessions but material they have looted. This correspondent saw two trucks towing Iraqi Army jeeps -- the jeeps themselves clearly damaged in allied fighting with the city's defenders. The jeeps were rolling on their axle rims, their tires burned out in explosions. And a truck pulling a stolen fire engine just went by.

Those coming out of the city say they are not stopped by Iraqi security forces or at the British checkpoints, though they are searched by coalition forces for weapons. The British Army has adopted a policy of leaving civilian access open to the city from several sides while locking security forces in.

Basra remains under a low-lying cloud of black smoke billowing up from oil trenches set afire to obscure the visibility of allied helicopters and low-flying aircraft. Inside, water supplies are sporadic, but international relief workers have largely repaired a pumping station whose failure last week cut off water to more than half the city.