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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- Looting, Death In Basra As British Military Tries To Bring City Under Full Control

RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel is on the southern outskirts of the Iraqi city of Basra, where large columns of British infantry today are moving into the city. British forces and Iraqi paramilitaries have waged bloody battles for control of the key southern city for many days.

Basra, Iraq; 7 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- I'm in Basra, where British infantry today is advancing cautiously along the main road from the south into the city. As they move slowly -- setting up firing positions, then deploying forward -- it remains uncertain how much of the city they will occupy today. For now, they have moved with armor into the city center while the infantry secures roads in the rear but is staying out of residential neighborhoods.

I passed 12 dead Iraqi fighters in a trench on the outskirts of the city as I moved up behind the British lines. I also passed burned-out Iraqi tanks destroyed in earlier fighting.

One man I spoke with today, who was driving with friends into Basra, said he is confident that pockets of Iraqi resistance will crumble. "I have heard the Ba'ath Party members in the city talking to each other and to the army officers, saying that they are afraid to surrender because of what the regime [of Saddam Hussein] might do to them. But they are waiting for the first American or British tank to approach so they can surrender to it. And that includes the Iraqi Army," he said.

In the city and suburbs of Basra, there is widespread looting today. At the moment, I'm near the university, whose main buildings are blackened and damaged by the fighting. Here, streams of people are carrying away copy machines, blackboards, cupboards, and anything that can be moved.

Some people are using trucks, some donkey carts, and some simply sacks on their backs. The looting is shocking many bystanders, who shout out, "Ali Baba!" at those stealing. Ali Baba is the famous leader of the 40 thieves in the tale "The Arabian Nights."

A British military spokesman, Colonel Chris Vernon, speaking in Basra today, said British forces have a sizable military presence in the city. "We continue with the divisional-sized operation we commenced yesterday. Our 7th Armored Brigade have now punched three battle groups from the west into Basra, and they're consolidating their positions in there and exploiting as they see opportunities to do so," Vernon said.

But another British military spokesman, Group Captain Al Lockwood, noted that British troops are still encountering pockets of Iraqi resistance in the city. "We've had a very successful operation in Basra. We now control the majority of the city. There is a pocket of resistance in the old city area, which we are dealing with," Lockwood said.

The British say it will take three or four more days before they have firm control over the city.

Many of the people I talked to say they welcome the allies entering the city but are dismayed that British soldiers are doing nothing to control the looting. As one man told me, describing the British advance: "All this army arriving in tanks -- can't they control civilians, too? This university, the Oil Ministry facility, isn't it a pity it is being looted?"

But British forces are focused on the military campaign and do not have the manpower at the moment to clear the city of fighters and at the same time replace the vanished police force. That means that bringing the city under full control could take days more, even as the military victory is now assured.