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WAR WITH IRAQ

Desperate Iraqi Villagers Awaiting Promised Aid

March 24, 2003|Sam Howe Verhovek and Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writers

RAFIDIYAH, Iraq — As far as Saeed Duaij is concerned, war is about losing the things that made it possible to live.

"All of a sudden, we have no water, no electricity," said the 32-year-old farmer who, like many here, relies on an electric pump to draw water from his well.

"I stored 10 chickens and some tomatoes, but that was only enough for three days," he moaned. "I have a little flour left, but I have five children to feed. When is all the help coming in?"

Three days of ground war have turned the villages in this southernmost corner of Iraq into a bastion of want and need with little expectation that necessities will quickly arrive.

British troops and United Nations officials said humanitarian assistance was part of the plan for a quick recovery, but aid officials in Kuwait City said pockets of unexpectedly fierce fighting in Iraq near Basra and in Umm al Qasr had made it too dangerous to open supply routes to the beleaguered villages.

British forces in a camp near Rafidiyah said that they had told superiors that the water and food situation was rapidly becoming critical but that no one could promise when help would arrive.

Villagers say life has been hard under President Saddam Hussein, and many hope that the U.S.-led invasion will vastly improve their lives in the long run.

But now, they say, they are suddenly facing serious shortages of supplies for meeting the most basic human needs, which at least were being provided by Hussein.

"If we don't get water soon, it's going to get very bad," said Sukni Falah, 30, a worker for the state utility. "The electricity has been cut off, so many people can't draw water at all. We can pull up a little water from a well by a hand bucket, but it's salty and there are dead insects in it."

The lack of water was also preventing fulfillment of an Islamic duty, the ritual washing of corpses.

"We can't even bury our dead," Falah said.

As the government's power has dissipated, order has begun to break down here. In Safwan, an Iraqi village near the Kuwaiti border, a group of men was looting the local fuel supply, breaking open a valve in a huge tank so gasoline cascaded like rainwater, allowing them to collect it in metal buckets.

Some of the men offered to sell it to foreigners in return for bottled water or the use of a satellite telephone to call relatives. There were no police or military forces in sight to stop the theft.

Elsewhere, British troops, called on to secure the area, struggled to prevent looting. In the village of Muwailha, on the road to Basra, four Iraqi men were detained at the point of a bayonet near the entrance to a deserted Iraqi military base.

British soldiers with the Scottish Black Watch Regiment made them crouch on the ground in front of a large stone mural glorifying Hussein. To the left hung a red cloth banner that in large Arabic script proclaimed: "May God Protect Iraq and Saddam Hussein."

One of the men, Walid Khalid, admitted to the British soldiers that he and the others had been looting, but he insisted that he had not taken up arms against them.

"We're not soldiers," Khalid said several times. "We were just coming here to take furniture and batteries."

A bit farther north, on the way into Rafidiyah, people carried off sticks of wood, door parts, scraps of metal, and bolts -- the cargo from two Iraqi military trucks that had been bombed in a U.S.-led airstrike, villagers said.

All that was left of the steel-belted radial tires were wires that looked like a great mop of human hair, and a few bits of metal that glinted in the sun. Nearby lay a charred, partly melted pile of Kalashnikov rifles that had apparently been stored on at least one of the trucks.

Several young boys, some with bare feet, picked up the mangled weapons and played with them.

Several villagers described the U.S.-led attack Friday that left the two military vehicles in flames. One was a supply truck, they said, and the other carried about a dozen Iraqi soldiers who fled for cover when they heard aircraft coming.

A British tank soon appeared and fired at the vehicles, quickly destroying them, said Mahdi Ali Sharif, 73, who lives in a mud-brick house down the street.

"Only two Iraqi soldiers were injured. I took them to my house, gave them some civilian clothes and some first aid, and they left. They were scared, but their morale seemed good."

A man who gave his first name as Mukdam was surveying the scene Sunday morning. He seemed dazed and took gold cloth stars and other military decorations from a pocket in his robe, identifying himself as an airman with the Iraqi platoon that had scattered.

"You should surrender," one of the village men urged him. "There's no point in staying -- the foreigners can just fight, fight, fight. You should go to the next checkpoint, and maybe the British will take you prisoner and give you food and water."

"No, I won't go," the man said. "I will not surrender. I am with the Iraqi air force."

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