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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- British Troops Welcomed In Basra As City Bustles

Basra, Iraq; 8 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- British forces have finally taken effective control of Basra, Iraq's second-largest city. The two-week siege of Basra is over, though some resistance is said to remain from elements of the Ba'ath Party. With the Iraqi resistance marginalized, hundreds of Basra's 1.3 million residents have taken to the streets to welcome the British troops. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel is in Basra and filed this "Desert Dispatch" at around 10:00 a.m. today.

Question: Can you describe the mood in Basra today?

Recknagel: The mood here in Basra seems to be very welcoming to the British soldiers. As we've come into the city this morning, we've passed a large number of British checkpoints. The soldiers are out of their tanks. Some of them have taken off their flak jackets and are sitting on the turrets just in their T-shirts, chatting with large crowds of people around them. We saw some bouquets of flowers atop one turret, which certainly indicates that the people around the tanks are very friendly.

We've confirmed that mood ourselves as we've driven now into the heart of the downtown. Where we are now, in fact, is quite far from the British presence. And we, too, are finding nothing but a welcome reception. People are out on the streets as normal. There's a lot of traffic. It looks like a normal Tuesday morning would look here. The neighborhood where we are, we're meeting professionals, we're meeting shopkeepers, all of them interested in who we are and expressing happiness with the change of events.

Question: What else have you been seeing today?

Recknagel: One other thing to mention is that some shops have reopened. Sidewalk hawkers are out and back in business and everything really begins to appear to be returning to normal. The British, in the meantime, have responded to the citizens' principal concern, which was to stop the looting, which was absolutely rampant in the city yesterday. The British forces have secured the hospital. They have also secured the Ministry of Islamic Affairs which was yesterday at this time burning and being looted.

As we go further into the city today, we will see what other key facilities they've secured. I will say that the looting seems to have petered off now into simply scavenging. That may be because the principal facilities which were heavily looted yesterday simply offered nothing more of interest to people. We're not seeing the same procession of trucks, donkey carts, and what-have-you moving out of the university, carrying virtually all of the school property. That seems to be over now.

Question: Was the city's infrastructure heavily damaged by the fighting over the past two weeks?

Recknagel: We're seeing very little destruction -- in fact, virtually none -- as we drive around the city today. What is destroyed are gun emplacements and artillery, heavy tanks -- those kinds of things -- which were obviously spotted by helicopters and destroyed by missiles. We're not seeing a lot of destruction to buildings. There is off in the distance here a large plume of black oil smoke, something that was set afire in fighting yesterday as the British did encounter some pockets of resistance but suppressed those with helicopter gunships. But in terms of damage to buildings, there really is very little. And life is back to the point of normalcy. Women and children are out on the balconies of their homes looking down into the streets. Some women even walking in the streets. And again no signs really of heavy damage to city buildings.

Question: Has any humanitarian aid been able to enter the city?

Recknagel: That seems not to be progressing very fast. We see no convoys of humanitarian goods moving in the city at all yet. Even at the hospital, which has been secured by British forces, we're not seeing any deliveries of supplies.

Question: Do the city's residents have enough water?

Recknagel: The water system was repaired. The main water pump, which was damaged last weekend, was repaired by the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross]. And water does not seem to be a major concern as a utility, although certainly all the time people on the street approach us asking or a drink of water simply because there is not a great deal of water available outside of people's homes. But the main water utility seems to be functioning relatively well, but that's something I'll need to learn more about.