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British tap a sheik to run Basra

Associated Press
Published April 9, 2003

British forces began establishing the first postwar administration in Iraq on Tuesday, putting a local sheik into power in the southern city of Basra shortly after their troops took control of the city.

The sheik was identified as a tribal leader, but his name and religious affiliation were not disclosed. Col. Chris Vernon, spokesman for the British forces, said the sheik had met British divisional commanders Monday and been given the job of setting up an administrative committee representing other groups in the region.

The sheik and his committee will be the first civilian leadership established in liberated Iraq, even as retired U.S. Gen. Jay Garner, appointed by the Pentagon to form an interim postwar administration, tries to define a new leadership for the whole country.

The sheik's committee will be left alone by the British to form a local authority, Vernon said. Garner has signed off on the British plan, Vernon said.

The sheik, a local figure and not an Iraqi exile, indicated he could tap some figures in Saddam Hussein's ruling Baath party who did not oppress the local people, Vernon said.

"We have ascertained that he is worthwhile, credible and has authority in the local area, particularly with the tribal chiefs," Vernon said, adding that the sheik will form his committee as he sees fit "and we will take him at his word on his judgment."

"We would very much trust their self-selection," Vernon said. "Their knowledge of the locals is far greater than ours is. They've been there. We've only been there 14 days."

British military officials said their main goal Tuesday was to assess hospitals, government buildings and schools. Maj. Norrie Robertson said British forces would move to secure public facilities in the next few days because "we're turning the focus from fighting to helping the community."

British officials sent out 10 water tankers, carrying 5,200 gallons of water each, which were promptly mobbed by hundreds of thirsty residents. Troops tried to impose an orderly distribution of water but were soon overwhelmed by crowds of people carrying plastic bottles, vegetable tins and plastic jugs.

Looters plundered government buildings, universities and even hospitals despite the presence of British troops, roaming the streets to grab whatever they could - ceiling fans, mattresses, car seats, furniture, slabs of wood. The telephone system had all but ceased functioning - not because of coalition airstrikes or attacks but because looters had stripped the utility bare.

Setting up a national-level administration has taken on increasing importance as U.S. and British forces have taken control of the country, but significant questions about the role of military rule and the degree of Iraqi and United Nations involvement remain unanswered.

Elements of the local police could be involved to help re-establish law and order, Vernon said, but indicated for the moment, they would not be allowed to carry weapons. Anyone carrying a gun will be considered an irregular fighter and risk being killed.

After nearly two weeks at the city's gates, British troops judged the time right Sunday for taking Basra and pushed into the urban area with 93 tanks and 70 armored fighting vehicles, using machine guns rather than heavier weapons to avoid civilian casualties, Vernon said.

Vernon acknowledged that there had been looting and said that British forces would be shifting from combat operations to law-and-order work. The resistance from irregular forces "is almost extinguished. Many of them did fight, right until the end."

Iraqi army forces that had been holed up in Basra had disintegrated, Vernon said. At least 4,000 prisoners of war had been taken in the past two weeks and more were believed to have been captured in the fall of the city.

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