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Basra: Bridge of surprise

At encircled Basra, civilians flow back and forth across a British-held bridge. Meanwhile, Iraq's port has light and water again, and much-needed relief begins to reach the north.

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 1, 2003

A veritable traffic jam clogged the British army checkpoint on the Shatt al-Basra Bridge on Monday, five lanes of disorder squeezed into one.

Battered orange-and-white taxicabs jostled with four-wheel-drive vehicles piled high with plastic crates filled with fresh tomatoes, onions and potatoes. Crowded minivans competed for space with flatbed trucks, a motorcycle and even a bicycle, while men in black robes and red-and-white kaffiyehs, or Arab headdresses, stood on the roadside talking somberly and trading gossip.

The scene was almost normal, an ordinary market day, were it not for the British soldiers searching vehicles entering Basra and subjecting pedestrians to a kaffiyeh-to-sandal pat-down search. People were leaving Basra, too, making for a near-continuous two-way flow: families with small children, buses filled with passengers, vans, four-wheel-drive cars, and the occasional ancient taxi sputtering past British Warrior armored vehicles and massive 100-ton Challenger II tanks.

Basra has two other major bridges over the waterway that are also under British army control, but they remained closed Monday.

For more than 10 days now, British troops on the edge of Basra and Iraqi soldiers and paramilitary units inside have been locked in a stalemate, playing what one soldier described as a deadly game of cat-and-mouse. At night, Iraqi tanks move from the center of town to the very edge of the city, just on the other side of this bridge. Iraqi fighters armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades fire on the British positions.

The British fire back with artillery -- when they can see their targets -- and sometimes chase after the tanks with their own armored vehicles until the Iraqis reverse gear and retreat back into the city's dense streets.

By day, the constant movement of people back and forth across this bridge at the southern entrance to Basra carries an air of unreality, as if the war were a remote concern compared to the rhythms of everyday life: people needing to shop, to travel, to visit friends and relatives.

Soldiers manning the checkpoints said they have caught some Iraqi fighters, members of the regular army, trying to leave the city, mixed in with the civilians. Some were spotted wearing military boots, others were caught because they had their uniforms rolled up in plastic bags. The soldiers, if discovered, are taken to a nearby camp for prisoners of war.

In the nearby village of Zubayr, about 12 miles south of the bridge, people congregated in the center of the street buying goods at open-air markets, and men in pickup trucks negotiated with merchants selling fresh produce.

Umm Qasr: Light and water

Monday night, for the first time since the war started, incandescent bulbs lit the darkness in Umm Qasr instead of the phosphorescent orange flares fired by British commandos on night raids.

For three-quarters of this town's 40,000 dirt-poor residents, electricity returned, thanks to the ingenuity of American and British engineers who overrode a shutdown switch thrown by Saddam Hussein loyalists as they left the city.

Freshwater also started to flow from Kuwait into Iraq at a rate of almost 400,000 gallons a day for people who had been without drinkable water for 11 days.

But the first breath of coalition humanitarian aid to reach Umm Qasr was marred by a dispute between American and British military officials over whether to charge Iraqis for the water they drink.

Sunday, the first water trucks made their rounds in Umm Qasr. So did a message from the coalition, broadcast over bullhorns: Henceforth, water would be free. Iraqis would no longer have to pay the delivery driver a fee.

That announced policy ran contrary to the declaration of American military officials, who said Monday that water-delivery truck drivers would be allowed to charge civilians -- but not schools and hospitals -- a small fee for the water they had received free of charge from the Kuwaiti government.

"What kind of aid would that be?" asked Maj. Tom Ellis, a spokesman for the British army. "How are they going to pay for this? These people don't even have shoes. The water will be free so that it can go to women and children."

Col. David Bassert, a U.S. civil affairs officer based in Umm Qasr, said Monday afternoon, "We will do it the way it has been done." Military officials say they don't want to derail the local economy and substitute what amounts to a welfare system.

Umm Qasr's water main has been shut off in Basra, so there is no way to pipe water to people's houses. Children and young men line the streets, begging passing military convoys for water.

Because British officials are overseeing Umm Qasr, it appeared Monday that their preference for a free-water policy would prevail.

Dohuk: A bit of relief

The first wartime U.N. humanitarian aid, a few truckloads of food and water, trickled across Iraq's borders from Turkey, U.N. agencies reported Monday. But officials said aid organizations and the U.S. military remain wary of working together on relief operations for Iraq.

Three trucks carrying 84.7 tons of dried milk crossed from Turkey and were unloaded in the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk on Saturday, the U.N. World Food Program said in a delayed report.

UNICEF spokesman Geoff Keele said two UNICEF trucks carrying medical and other goods have been waiting at the northern border for Turkish permission to cross into Iraq.

-- Information from the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune and Associated Press was used in this report.

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