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Last Updated:  Friday, 28 March, 2003, 19:29 GMT
'We have to win the people's trust'
By Sarah Oliver
With the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Regiment in southern Iraq

Iraqi woman and child
The people's trust has to be won
"What part of 'No' don't you understand?", bellowed Lt Colonel Tim Collins as he reached for his British Army pistol, took aim and shot out all four tyres on the Iraqi pick-up.

The driver was a looter, stealing machinery vital to the commercial future of Iraq's southern oilfields.

His reluctance to return the spoils of war had brought him into conflict with the man who is now the power in these parts.

The British assault on Saddam's Baath party has left a dangerous vacuum.

But it is one which, Royal Irish Commanding Officer Lt Colonel Tim Collins is determined to fill.

And so his men are imposing law and order on the region - while flooding it with food, medical aid, drinking water and power supplies.

Model town

They are determined to make this ramshackle desert settlement - which I cannot name for fear of reprisals against them - a self governing model town to which the rest of free Iraq can look for inspiration.

A six-man Civilian-Military Co-operation team has arrived and has already restored street lights and domestic power.

Two Army water tankers have brought in drinking water and a medical assessment team has established what supplies and expertise are now needed at the local clinic.

The Army's next aim is to encourage the nomadic traders to return and kick start the town's flagging economy. The local tomato seller has already set up his stall.

International oilfield experts will assess how quickly the industry can be made commercially successful.

And within days the local school will open its doors again - but only after the Army has stripped it of Saddam propaganda.

Arms stockpile

They remember the Americans giving sweets to the children and food and fuel to the adults and then leaving them to face Chemical Ali
Lt Colonel Tim Collins
It has not been an easy task. In the drawers of his desk the regional Baath party chief kept a knuckleduster and the keys to a personal armoury from which 39 weapons have so far been recovered.

He also, in a town of the hungry, had a quarter ton stockpile of food.

In the desert wastes beyond the town limits are a number of mass graves, containing the bodies of those who co-operated with American troops during the last Gulf conflict and who met with swift reprisals from Chemical Ali.

They were, according to Lt Colonel Collins "discarded like dogs with a brutality beyond imagining".

Their deaths were not however, covered up but publicised as a warning to the those who lived.

The Royal Irish have discovered barracks which would have housed perhaps 1,500 soldiers.

They had a chemical weapons capacity and the soldiers had access to nerve agent antidote Atropine, suggesting the Baath party, in this region at least, was prepared to use them.

Its grip was so strong that mosques were banned.

It has been hard to overturn this kind of tyranny, years of spying and betrayals, torture and murders, in a matter of days.

Fear is everywhere

Fear still pervades. Only one nurse has returned to the clinic and of the five shops, four remain shuttered.

Children clamour at the gates of the Royal Irish base but their parents remain silently in the background.

But there is also progress. I watched as two men drew diagrams in the sand to point water engineers away from a water tower redundant since the last Gulf conflict and towards newer, underground chambers.

In doing so they risked their lives to help themselves and others.

Lt Colonel Collins initially established himself in the Baath party headquarters.

He was determined to throw open its doors, upon which one of his men had scrawled 'Welcome to Free Iraq', to local people.

He said: "We came into this area hard and at no little risk.

"We have had great success in cutting off the Baath Party here - its chief who was Lord God on High in these parts - is currently considering his options in a Prisoner of War cage.

"I had reserved judgment on him and then I found the knuckleduster in his drawer.

"One of the few good things I can say about him and the party in general is that they keep meticulous records and we established all the names of their local members and the serial numbers of their weapons.

"We knew they were threatening people who were co-operating with us so paid some of them a visit overnight.

"It's not straightforward but it works - one man found that a shot through his kitchen floor helped him remember where his weapon was hidden.

Terrible retribution

"But with the civilians we have a hard task. They remember the Americans giving sweets to the children and food and fuel to the adults and then leaving them to face Chemical Ali.

"A teenage girl who waved at British troops at Az-Zubayr yesterday was hanged within the hour there so there is still much fear.

"Our mission is to assuage it, to fill the power vacuum left by the decapitation of the Baath Party - you have to understand that nobody under the age of 45 has ever known life without it.

"They have no concept or inkling of freedom and that is a heavy weight on our shoulders.

"We need to prove daily our physical and psychological dominance of this area of British operations, we need to maintain an air of menace so people know that if there is any killing there will be swift retribution."

It was this retribution he administered to the looter in the pick-up.

Whole families in this town are scouring the oil and gas yards for vehicles, plant, tools and safety clothes such as boiler suits and goggles for which they have no use.

With the collapse of the Baath Party there is no law and order and their inability to think for themselves has blinded them to the fact that their individual thefts are destroying the infrastructure of the very industry which will secure their collective future.

The huge military presence here - destroyed by American Marines when they crossed the breach 10 days ago - and the spider's web of police checkpoints were a clear indication of the strategic importance of this town.

Once a desert village it has grown to a community of around 4,000, the majority oil, gas and railway workers employed in the Al Rumaila oilfields which are the financial powerhouse of Saddam's regime.

As Saddam readied himself for war, the people made meagre stockpiles. They had just a few days food and fuel and five more days of water when the Royal Irish mercy mission was launched.

It has been a time, according to Lt Colonel Collins, of little victories.

It remains his earnest hope they become self perpetuating both here and across wider Iraq.

  • This is a pooled despatch from Sarah Oliver of the Mail on Sunday.

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