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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- Death, Looting, Torture, And Smiles -- Scenes From The Fall Of Basra

Iraq's second-largest city, Basra, has fallen to British forces in an unexpectedly peaceful conclusion to more than two weeks of periodic fighting. British ground forces entered the city yesterday as remaining pockets of resistance melted away. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel witnessed the fall of Basra and shares these impressions of the events.

Basra, 8 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As one British officer expressed it to the press, "We leaned on the door of Basra, and it burst open."

That statement captures the sense of surprise that swept over both soldiers and watching reporters yesterday as British troops advanced into the city. Nobody expected the soldiers to meet so little Iraqi resistance or, by day's end, to reach the city center and take up positions amid a generally welcoming population.

The day opened with hundreds of soldiers from the 1st British Infantry moving into Basra from the south, clearly ready for a fight. The advance came after days of a British strategy to isolate the city, which left no one sure of just how much resistance was left inside. The isolation strategy -- coupled with air strikes against tanks and gun emplacements within the city -- was intended to demoralize the remaining Iraqi security forces by cutting them off from Baghdad.

As the British infantrymen deployed on foot, setting up skirmish lines, then advancing ahead, there were plenty of signs of increasing Iraqi resistance around them. Off to one side, three Iraqi fighters were lying dead behind an embankment, killed just hours earlier by artillery or air strikes. While the troops moved by, a Red Crescent ambulance was taking away the bodies amid a staring crowd.

One of the nurses, a Ba'ath Party loyalist, tried to shout down people who told reporters that Saddam Hussein's regime deserved to collapse. She called the fighters heroes who had died for their homeland.

As the allied advance continued, feeling its way cautiously along the main road, reporters followed behind, passing burned-out Iraqi tanks and vehicles. But the most unexpected sight were the civilians in cars moving up and down the same road beside the soldiers. Many in the cars said that the fight for Basra was over and that they were coming from other cities to check on the safety of their relatives.

Some men and boys tried to chat with the soldiers whenever they squatted down in firing positions, giving the scene the strange feel of a military exercise on a public parade ground.

But while some people went to meet the soldiers, many others had more pressing business in mind. As the soldiers advanced, massive looting was taking place around them. Crowds pressed onto the university campus and other public buildings, carting off whatever they could carry. I saw cars, donkey carts, and men with sacks on their backs carrying away copy machines, furniture, and even chalkboards.

Much of the looting at the university focused on one of the main buildings, which was blackened and damaged around the upper floor windows from recent fighting. One woman sat on the road near the university entrance guarding two small sofas and other bits of furniture. She was arguing with a university student who was berating her for making off with school property. The woman's two sons, armed with sticks, watched menacingly.

Many people I talked to said they were glad to see the British troops moving into the city but were dismayed by the sacking of public buildings. One man told me he could not understand how an army of British tanks and soldiers could defeat Hussein's loyalists but not control ordinary people.

Moving deeper into the city, I discovered that the looting was limited to government buildings. Shops were tightly shuttered, and there were no crowds trying to break into them.

The closer I got to downtown Basra, the happier people seemed to be to see foreigners. Many told me they had been watching the British troops enter and had waved to them and were relieved that the soldiers returned their greetings and appeared friendly.

One small crowd was gathered in front of a city jail. The jail had emptied out two nights ago when the police vanished and the prisoners broke out.

One inmate was still lingering inside the prison compound, half crazy and perhaps with nowhere to go. Holding a screwdriver for protection, he told us that the jail was for common criminals and that he had been jailed for stealing a sack of flour.

The prisoner then gave me and a fascinated mob of onlookers a tour of the worst the jail had to offer. That included a punishment room with hooks on the ceiling for lifting men off the floor by their arms behind their backs. He also showed electric cables he said were used to shock prisoners when they fought with each other for water and food. He called most of the jail food "inedible" and the water "sewage."

The man's stories, plus the sight of his chest, which showed horrible scars he said were made by torturers using screwdrivers, finally frightened the crowd of visitors back into the street, leaving him alone again among the empty cells.

Late in the day, there was the sound of British helicopter gunships overhead, followed by powerful explosions from the downtown area. The explosions were a sign that somewhere, someone was still resisting, and that their fire was being suppressed with missiles.

But the rare sound of fighting only underlined the fact that Basra -- a city of almost 2 million people -- is now occupied by British forces and is no longer part of Saddam-controlled Iraq.

By dusk, British forces were reported in the central markets, amid speculation that they would headquarter in an abandoned downtown barracks. With main arteries now firmly in allied hands, the next days are likely to see troops fanning out down smaller streets to extend their control into residential neighborhoods. Then they will have to begin the difficult task of fully restoring order, ending the looting, and setting up a new administration to replace the vanished former government.