At Umm Qasr, the Southern Port "Secured" by the Marines, "It's Chaos"
Tuesday 1 April 2003
While the Americans would like this city to become "the window" of the South, lootings multiply. Residents, very happy "to be liberated", complain of the lack of water. From Le Monde's special envoy in Umm Qasr.
"For thirty years, Iraqis have been accustomed to live under the truncheon of Saddam. Today the truncheon has disappeared and it's chaos ", deplores Hamdane, while contemplating a cloud of young looters in action in Umm Qasr, the port city "secured" by coalition forces in Southern Iraq.
Two weeks ago, the houses that they finish "cleaning" sheltered, among other things, the Internet Center, installed in the local branch office of the Ministry of Telecommunications. Furniture, doors, plummbing fixtures, electric wires, everything is gone.
These recent ministry houses symbolized the "luxury" enjoyed by Party Comrades in this southern region where Northerners feel exiled. Didn't their offices have air-conditioning, while the hospital didn't? Hamdane, a specialized craftsman with seven children at home, doesn't even have a refrigerator. He's also doing the rounds of the public buildings and factories with a wheelbarrow, just like the looters he condemns. The perimeter of the new port, occupied by the Marines, starts only five hundred meters away, but they make war, not do police work.
Monday March 31, these Marines enlarged the prohibited perimeter in front of their main camp, in fear of suicide attacks. Umm Qasr, their bridgehead, is nevertheless the most secure zone for the Americans in Iraq. Their colleagues in "civilian affairs" have finally succeeded in reestablishing water and electricity.
During the preceding days, the residents, very happy to be "liberated", were already crazed: "If water doesn't come soon, there will be a revolution against the coalition, how do they not understand that they're digging their graves?" asked one. Apologies repeated ad infinitum while children cried, "water, water!" at the sight of any foreign vehicle. However, Monday, Major Paul Stanley, of the British army's corps of "civil engineers" was confident that Umm Qasr would quickly play its role as a "window" for the region, particularly for the residents of Basra.
Monday, the British launched new forces into the battle for the country's second city "the liberation of which will be a turning point for the South", assured the Major. Even if, for now, this window is painful to see. "Schools and most of the market remain closed", he said, "because the population has not yet crossed the green line past which it will be certain Saddam isn't coming back." And that's what should change with the fall of Basra. Put another way, the bridgehead will be consolidated with the capture of the Southern metropolis, which will fall more easily when this bridgehead becomes attractive.
The first task of the "civil engineers" was to prevent a mass of refugees from blocking the military route to Baghdad. There were no floods of refugees. However, the whole region was deprived of water. It came- briny water by canals, and potable water by water-trucks- from Basra where Saddam's forces won't let it leave any more.
This was an apparently unforeseen situation, as British army engineers took a long week to lay 2.5km of canals from Kuwait to the Marine's camp at the frontier. Iraqi water-truck drivers began to distribute water Monday in Umm Qasr. "But some only gave it to their own clans, others sold it, the population is still complaining. We threatened the drivers with loss of their licenses, it should go better tomorrow and the day after tomorrow", the Major said. At the hospital, which now serves only for quick day consultations, the little bit of water allocated "was looted a half-hour later by the neighborhood people. How was I to stop them?" sighs a Director.
Another job of the "civil engineers": identify the managers capable of restarting activity in the region. This is the biggest problem: all the managers of factories and vital installations are Baath party members, as are their assistants, and the assistants of the assistants. None of them has come forward to suggest resuming service under the tutelage of the "occupiers". These are reduced to depending on a little over a dozen people of good will, often English professors or doctors, who have neither the necessary knowledge, nor the art or desire of imposing themselves like the Baathists.
Beyond which, they sometimes fear over-exposing themselves. Only the hiring of former port employees is taking place at an accelerated rhythm, carried by the designation of an American company to manage these installations with USAID financing. This financing, says Major Stanley, will also permit the "repurchase of the office chairs stolen in the city". However, these disappointments, which the UN's entry on the scene, one hopes, will make up for, will have served as experience before the capture of Basra: one to two million residents strong, that city will be placed under direct coalition military command. One learns in passing that the British believed there were five thousand inhabitants of Umm Qasr and that they now estimate between thirty and forty thousand.
However that may be, the American and British "civilian officers" assure us that the population itself must find the management organizations, at the risk of reestablishing the former structures, to resume activity. This is precisely what bothers the inhabitants. Some continue to deliver lists of "party members to arrest", others hope for the return of those who were personally closest to them and decry the anarchy induced by the war. Still, those who respond "yes" to the question: Do you want the Americans to leave? are very few. "That would be the worst that could happen", answers Hamdane.
Translation: TruthOut French language correspondent Leslie Thatcher
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