St. Petersburg Times Online
Advertisement
Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Iraq

Journey of fear

Civilians flee Basra with little more than their lives, not sure whom to trust. Equally wary allied forces continue to engage Iraqi fighters.

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 31, 2003


ON THE BRIDGE TO BASRA, Iraq -- They crossed the bridge wearing tattered shoes if any at all. Their arms were filled with bags packed for exodus and children too young to walk. The city behind them, Basra, presented an apocalyptic landscape, jet black smoke from burning oil fires spilling over the flat desert horizon.

They were afraid.

Afraid of Saddam Hussein's troops inside the city who they said were executing people freely, afraid of the forces outside the city whose intentions they did not yet know and afraid of what would come as their supplies of food and water continued to dwindle.

"We have nothing," said Saeed, a young man from the nearby town of Zubayr. He was trying to salvage scrap from a car that was little more that a charred skeleton. "No water, no food, no electricity, nothing."

Sunday morning, Iraqi soldiers positioned in a factory complex around 500 yards beyond this bridge let loose a barrage of machine gun and mortar fire toward the civilians walking out of Basra, sending them diving for cover in ditches, ponds and the bombed-out remains of vehicles, eyewitnesses said.

Mothers in black Islamic garments clutched crying babies to their chests. Young men tightly held the hands of their grandmothers. And an old, sun-weathered man with a cane briefly looked to the heavens and yelled, "Allah! God help me."

As bullets and shells flew over their heads, the refugees huddled together in fear. Plumes of black smoke rose behind them as British Challenger tanks fired back at the Iraqi fighters a half-mile away.

When the Iraqi paramilitary men returned another artillery round, the refugees got up and flooded toward the British checkpoint, screaming and crying.

British soldiers stopped many men ages 18 to 40, prime fighting years, to search them. Most were allowed through to join their families.

More than 1,000 Iraqi fighters are holed up in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city. British commanders who control this bridge, about 6 miles from Basra, said Iraqi militias cruise the area in pickup trucks mounted with machine guns. The militia members use cell phones to call in sniper attacks and mortar strikes from a factory north of the bridge and a nearby shantytown.

One British soldier was killed in fighting nearer to the city, and several others were injured, according to the British Defense Ministry in London.

Eleven days into the American-led war, the narrow, once fertile crescent of territory that gives Iraq its only outlet to the sea remains a land of insecurity and ambivalence, devoid of the euphoria that American and British soldiers had hoped to encounter in southern Iraq.

Basra, a city of 1.5-million, encircled now by British troops, remains a place of uncertainty. What exactly is happening there is unclear, but the reports from those fleeing are troubling.

While older people carry dirty water from fetid puddles and wait for help to come, the predominant emotions on the city's outskirts seem to be apprehension, confusion or outright mistrust. Barefoot children run through the dust of passing military vehicles with outstretched hands, shouting the only English word they know: "Give!"

Basra lies close to Zubayr, a town captured by allied forces early in the war but still not fully secured. Saeed, the man from there, was still too scared to give his full name. He said fedayeen soldiers loyal to Hussein were killing those they saw talking to allied forces.

Saeed said he did not like the life he was handed in Iraq but was equally distrustful of the allied army.

"When the Americans came and said they took Zubayr, they left the next day," he said. "The fedayeen came in then, and we had to flee."

-- Information from the New York Times and Knight Ridder Newspapers was used in this report.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.