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Relief for Basra Hindered

Fighting and an uprising are making passage unsafe for those bringing supplies into the city, agencies say.

March 26, 2003|Sam Howe Verhovek and Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writers

KUWAIT CITY — As British troops fought Iraqi militiamen and civil insurrection seemed to grow in Basra on Tuesday, the humanitarian crisis deepened in Iraq's second-largest city, where it was impossible to deliver food and water because of the intense fighting.

Aid workers were stationed on ships and at other locations just outside Iraq, but the inability to secure safe passage prevented any goods from being distributed in Basra, at the southern end of the country.

"How long will this last?" asked Kazem Hani, 50, a farmer who lives outside Basra. "We need planners to organize the area, to bring water, electricity, medicine, gasoline. Our water pumps aren't working. Our storage of food is low. Where's the U.N.? Where's all this help the Americans promised?"

Another farmer, Abdulla Karim, 16, from the village of Muwailha, was just as blunt. "We don't have anything, no food, no flour to bake. I hope they are bringing water soon. Our tomato farm got bombed. It is hard for me to see how this is helping us."

Help for Basra is on the way -- as soon as the Iraqi fighters in the city can be cleared away and the supply routes made safe, coalition spokesmen said Tuesday. But many experts said that every day lost worsened not only the humanitarian crisis but the political one as well.

There were reports Tuesday night of a popular uprising in Basra against Iraqi troops and irregular forces, even as the British were starting their own efforts to help the insurgents. Journalists traveling with the British troops said they were told by commanders that residents had gathered in the city center Tuesday and had been fired on by Iraqi troops. The British responded by firing at Iraqi mortar positions, the reporters said.

The British pool reports also described Basra residents rampaging through the streets and setting dozens of buildings on fire. As part of the effort to incite insurrection, the British distributed leaflets telling residents that aid was just outside the city.

"Our intent is not to siege the city, for sure," U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said in Doha, Qatar. "Our intent is to return security to the city as rapidly as we can and root out those forces that would fight in the city, use the residents as shields and try to create targets."

The majority of the people in Basra are Shiite Muslims who have little, if any, loyalty to Saddam Hussein's regime. But there were indications that Shiite leaders are as much opposed to the invasion of the country as they are to Hussein.

Among those who have issued statements about the British and American presence was Ayatollah Mohsen Hakim of the Iran-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. In a statement Monday, he said: "We all agree that foreigners should be blocked if they seek to occupy Iraq."

The Shiites are wary of the United States because of what happened when the Persian Gulf War ended in 1991. The Bush administration at the time called on them to rise up against Hussein, and millions of Shiites in the south and Kurds in the north did just that.

But the United States did nothing to stop Hussein from violently putting down the revolt. Tens of thousands are estimated to have been killed.

"Among the Shiites, hatred for Saddam is balanced by their mistrust of the United States and their fear that the United States does not have their interests at heart," said Peter Galbraith, a former diplomat who investigated the impact of the 1991 Iraqi uprisings while with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Even more immediate than these issues is what the Iraqis will eat and drink in coming days. A few technicians have entered Iraq under armed British escort to work on such problems.

Tamara Rifai, an official with the International Committee of the Red Cross, said her organization managed to restore limited water supply to Basra by diverting water from the Shat al Arab River through treatment plants.

That has given the city 40% of its normal requirements, but the quality of the water is poor at best, carrying the risk of a cholera or diarrhea outbreak, she said.

"It's like trying to clean river water with purification tablets," she said. "It's really not healthy."

After much negotiating with military authorities for access, the Red Cross sent an expert to the main water station Tuesday to try to fix the problems. But there is no immediate indication as to how long that will take.

The cause of the water station's breakdown remains in dispute. Iraqi spokesmen and some residents said it was bombed.

But Col. Chris Vernon, a British military spokesman, said Tuesday: "We're not sure how it happened. But we've looked at it, and we can honestly say we do not think it was anything we have done."

So far, U.S. and British forces have balked at granting access for even a small number of experts into the most needy areas, humanitarian groups said.

Antonia Paradela, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program, said the agency has about 32,000 tons of food available in four countries that border Iraq.

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