Iraqis In Basra Weigh Freedom's Cost
Tuesday 8 April 2003
BASRA, Iraq -- Public jubilation gave way to simmering anger in some quarters of Basra yesterday as residents tallied the bloody cost of their liberation, measured in civilian lives, destroyed public buildings, and lost law and order.
British Troops Met With Joy, Disdain
British officials trumpeted the fall of the capital of southern Iraq and said they had killed Ali Hassan al-Majid, the member of Saddam Hussein's inner circle known as ''Chemical Ali'' and said to be responsible for the 1988 poison gas attacks against Kurds in northern Iraq.
On the streets and in the hospitals of Basra, however, some people who survived a punishing two-week siege told stories of rage and frustration. At Basra General Hospital, doctors showed a hole in the orthopedic ward's roof caused, they said, by an incoming British round Thursday that killed six people.
Volunteers from the Red Cross collected the waterlogged bodies of 12 fighters, most of them apparently members of the Fedayeen Saddam militia, killed the night before last defending Basra University.
Under the watchful eyes of dozens of British paratroopers, knots of men praised the Fedayeen and disparaged coalition troops for allowing looters to strip the campus of its books, computers, and furniture.
''One good thing about Saddam is that he kept law and order,'' said Faheed Ahmed, a chemistry teacher at Al Quds high school. ''Regardless if we like Saddam Hussein or not, we don't appreciate the foreign army coming into our country and letting people destroy our public resources.''
In other parts of the city, hundreds of people poured into the streets to welcome the British soldiers, who joked with civilians. The Associated Press quoted one man as saying: ''Saddam destroyed everything. He destroyed the water. He destroyed the people. The people of Basra are very happy today.''
Air Marshal Brian Burridge, commander of the British forces in Iraq, stopped short of declaring total victory, citing continuing fighting in corners of the city. Soldiers reported that many suspected Fedayeen fighters had fled Basra and might be regrouping nearby. ''The last 48 hours have been historic for the people of Basra,'' Burridge told reporters at US Central Command outside Doha, Qatar. ''There will be some difficult days ahead, but the Ba'athist regime is finished in Basra.''
Yesterday afternoon, British paratroopers were sweeping Basra's old city, one of the last pockets of resistance, venturing on foot into winding alleys and narrow streets. UK forces believed the last fighters would take up positions in the southeast corner of the old town.
Initially, coalition forces had hoped that an uprising would topple the Ba'ath Party and that Iraqis would then invite British troops into Basra. The majority Shia Muslim city suffered economic and political privation under Hussein's regime, especially after it revolted against the government following the 1991 Gulf War.
Instead, the city appears to have remained in the grip of the Ba'ath Party until Sunday, when the leadership fled and turned the city over to British tanks and hordes of looters.
''All Iraqi eyes will be on Basra and British behavior there,'' Burridge said, ''and the people of Baghdad would look to Basra. The people of Iraq will take time to trust us. We must earn their respect.''
If Basra is meant to pave the road to victory in Baghdad, American and British war planners may have an uphill struggle. Even those who professed disdain for the Ba'ath regime said they resented the foreign troop presence in their city and the civilian lives lost in the fight for its control.
''Don't come to talk to me unless you can bring me water for the patients. There has been no water here for two days,'' said Dr. Mussalim Mahdi al-Hassan, director of Basra General Hospital. He said he hadn't left the hospital in two weeks.
Hassan said at least 1,200 civilians had been killed since British troops encircled Basra on March 25. He said he doesn't know how many people died when the fighting escalated last weekend.
According to Hadi Abbas, head of the Red Crescent in Basra, 30 civilians had been killed in the past two days.
British officials declined to estimate how many Iraqis were killed during the push into the city. Three British soldiers died, bringing the war's total to 30. At least 500 patients wounded by mortar, shrapnel, bombs, and gunfire filled the hospital's wards.
''No one has control of the city,'' Hassan said. Looters had stolen the engine for the morgue refrigerator in the hospital's forensics department, leaving bodies to rot.
Hassan said he asked British troops to protect the hospital, but they refused. ''What are they doing?'' he said.
Yesterday afternoon, looters sacked the university, weaving under the turrets of British tanks with donkey carts crammed with appliances and rolling chairs stacked with computers.
Hundreds of yards away, Red Crescent workers stepped gingerly through the mud to lift the decaying, reeking bodies of 12 fighters from the bog next to the university.
''We heard there were martyrs here,'' said Eenas, 24, a teacher who had volunteered with the Red Crescent and gave only his first name. ''My heart is broken for these dead soldiers.''
Green headbands on many of the bodies marked them as volunteer fighters from abroad. Onlookers recognized them from Iraqi state television, where Libyan, Egyptian, Syrian, and other Arab Fedayeen had been paraded just before the war.
Sergeant Giles Penfound of Britain said at least one French-Moroccan fighter had been captured at the university. Papers found on one dead man in the swamp identified him as Libyan, and another had Syrian identity documents.
''This is a real, real man,'' said Khalil Yusuf Abdurrahman, a taxi driver in a clean white garment, pointing at the Syrian fighter's corpse face-down in the water. ''These Fedayeen did a good job, but if God is willing, all Iraqis will fight to defend their country,'' Abdurrahman said.
However, Ahmed Talib, a 26-year-old English literature graduate student at Basra University, said the Fedayeen Saddam used to invade homes in the middle of the night. ''They are murderers,'' Talib said.
In the city center, Basra residents said it was unconscionable for British troops to ignore the looters.
Hassan Akool, 30, who took a leave of absence from his job at a foreign exchange firm in Basra to stay with his family during the war, said, ''The coalition says it wants to protect the Iraqi people, but nobody cares.''
Power has remained on in Basra throughout the siege, and residents said they have followed the progress of the war on Iraqi state television and on Al-Jazeera and networks in Kuwait and Iran, whose signals reach the city.
Like many people in Basra, Akool has heard the US and British message of liberation and prosperity for oppressed Iraqis.
''The Iraqi people are unhappy now,'' Akool said. ''If the things the coalition promised do not happen, we will be very disappointed.''
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