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WAR WITH IRAQ / TURMOIL IN THE SOUTH

Iraqis Fire on Their Own in Basra

Paramilitaries deter hundreds trying to flee, British troops say. The chaos further delays aid.

March 29, 2003|Sam Howe Verhovek and Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writers

BASRA, Iraq — Iraqi paramilitary forces, firing machine guns and mortars mounted on jeeps, forced hundreds of civilians to turn back from attempts to flee the nation's second-largest city Friday, witnesses and British officials said.

The violence and turmoil continued to prevent British troops from delivering humanitarian aid to the city, and commanders acknowledged that much of the city's sharply curtailed water supply remained under the control of pro-Saddam Hussein forces.

Thousands of other Basra residents did manage to escape Friday, streaming south toward the Kuwaiti border and the port town of Umm al Qasr, many in agonized search of fleeing relatives, as well as water and food. Several told of the chaos they left behind.

"We're very afraid," said Fizal Abid Naser, 38. "They were killing children and women at the crossroads," said Naser, referring to the Fedayeen Saddam, or "martyr" troops loyal to Hussein who he said were roaming through neighborhoods and even individual homes.

The fate of Basra has proved a difficult problem for coalition forces, who bypassed the city last week to sweep more quickly toward Baghdad. British forces had hoped a popular uprising would erupt so that they could avoid street fighting against Hussein loyalists. But the paramilitary forces have clung to control and as humanitarian concerns mounted, residents were not allowed to leave.

There has been no official estimate of casualties, either in the city at large or in the incident Friday morning in which the Fedayeen fired at a mass of civilians attempting to cross one of the southern bridges out of town and toward the relative safety of British fortifications.

Forces from Britain's 7th Armored Brigade were in a position to attack, but leaders said they held fire because of the huge numbers of civilians who were essentially herded back into the city of 1.3 million by the Fedayeen.

"We had to watch them go," said Squadron Leader Simon Scott, a British military spokesman.

Those who managed to flee Basra on Friday described wrenching scenes.

A retired engineer who would identify himself only by his first name, Mohammed, said Iraqi soldiers were appropriating people's houses, then using them as bases to launch their attacks on British forces.

"Please don't use my full name," he said. "I have to go back to Basra. My wife and four children are still there."

Several fleeing residents said the only attacks they'd seen by U.S. or British forces had been from aircraft or artillery fire.

"The foreigners are afraid of losing their army. There are a lot of Fedayeen," Mohammed said, adding that there may be as many as 10,000 troops and paramilitary fighters inside the city.

Basra residents said armed soldiers dressed in civilian clothes continued to man checkpoints at major intersections.

"Some civilians have been killed by Fedayeen," said Mohammed. "Just saying the wrong thing can get you killed."

A modest revolt against the Iraqi military occurred in the Al Kaad neighborhood of Basra after soldiers appropriated several people's houses, according to some residents. But most city dwellers were too loyal or afraid of reprisals to rebel, said Mohammed Abbas, 29, a farmer.

"There was no revolution," Abbas said.

On the highway leading south from Basra, a steady parade of trucks, cars, ambulances and carts, some piled high with possessions, transported residents away from the city in an orderly manner.

"I just came from Basra," said Mohammed Saleh, a merchant with his wife and three children jammed into the cab of a pickup loaded with bags of rice and wheat.

"It's very dangerous," he said, as an artillery shell exploded in the direction he had come from. "We saw a lot of cross-fire. I'm worried for my children."

Not everyone was trying to flee Basra, however. At a checkpoint manned by British troops about 10 miles outside the city, more than 100 men waited to reenter, including several who said they were farm laborers who had been working when the war started and had not been able to get back. Many said they were concerned for their families.

"We've been stuck here for a week," said one 50-year-old man who asked that he be identified only by his first name, Hamdani. "We're reduced to sleeping in the road or at the mosque."

"The soldiers at the checkpoint search us, but don't let us through," said Hamdani, who was hoping to return to Basra to look for a neighbor's missing son. "They seem to restrict young men in particular who might go back to Basra and join the fight against them."

Many of the trucks that were allowed to pass in the direction of the city were filled with tomatoes and vegetables.

Salem Hasson, a 47-year-old tea merchant, lugged two plastic bags of vegetables and a small sack of eggs that he was bringing to his eight children. He made the trip, he said, because food shortages in Basra had driven up prices tenfold.

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