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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 26 March, 2003, 11:13 GMT
Battle for hearts and minds at Umm Qasr
By Ryan Dilley
BBC News Online, Umm Qasr, Iraq

Coalition soldier with kids in Umm Qasr
Children in Umm Qasr with a coalition soldier
Securing Umm Qasr's port is vital to the US-led forces attacking Iraq, and not only because it will allow them to land humanitarian aid. That this tiny town, barely inside Iraq, could remain hostile territory for days was a psychological setback for them.

Umm Qasr is literally a stone's throw from the Kuwaiti border. From the wire fence which separates the emirate from Iraq, the lattice work of the port's cranes can be easily picked out by the naked eye.

Despite this proximity, the first town inside Iraq was not the walkover for the invading US-led forces many had predicted.

Inside Umm Qasr in pictures and words

Aid ships were already supposed to be off-loading the food and medicine President Bush promised to the Iraqi people. The cranes remain still.

Even as recently as Sunday, US and British marines were meeting pockets of "stern resistance" in the town, delaying efforts to sweep the harbour and approach channels for mines and booby traps. In the words of one British soldier the troops have "been getting plenty of work".

"Umm Qasr is a city similar to Southampton," UK defence minister Geoff Hoon said this week. "He's either never been to Southampton, or he's never been to Umm Qasr," says one of the British soldiers now patrolling the Iraqi settlement, which could barely be described as a town.

Even without the lashing rain, Umm Qasr would be a grim sight. On the land horizon, an oil well torched by Iraqi soldiers burns, the thick black smoke carried in a horizontal ribbon by the strong wind. On the sea horizon is a flotilla of hi-tech warships belonging to the forces trying to oust Saddam Hussein. In the middle are the people of Umm Qasr.

Locals return to streets
Locals start to return to the streets
The first thing to greet you inside Iraq is a huge double-sided mosaic of Saddam. He is depicted both in his favourite macho pose - khaki shirt, beret, firing a pistol - and in a more effete white formal uniform.

Dwarfed by these images, stands a young Iraqi man in a Manchester United shirt. He gives a thumbs up.

"There are too many pictures of Saddam for us to bother with," says Royal Marine commando, Major Ray Tonner. "If we were going to try to get rid of every one we'd be at it all day. If the locals want to deface them, it's up to them."

The few locals visible, mostly children, seem more occupied accepting sweets and fruit from British troops. With organised resistance in the area ended, and the threat from Iraqi snipers diminishing, the local people have only just started to come back onto Umm Qasr's few streets.

"When we took over from the US Marines here on Saturday, you could see the odd local head bob up over a wall. Then the kids came over on bikes to stop our trucks. As they realised we were okay, the men came out. And today even the women," says Major Tonner.

Watching soldier
Watchful eyes still look out for Iraqi snipers
"The initial fear was that we'd go away like in 1991 and that the Baath Party would return. We're reassuring them that won't happen."

There is a second front in the battle for Iraqi hearts and minds - the arrival of food aid to help these wretchedly poor people. Not far from Umm Qasr's few dozen mud-brick houses are the two docks where these supplies will be landed.

Within view of abandoned Iraqi foxholes, packs of stray dogs and children walking barefoot in the muddy, rutted roads. Australian and British divers in the large harbour have begun a round-the-clock search for mines.

While no explosives have yet been found, this work is dangerous in the extreme. In the muddy, oily waters the Australian frogmen are hunting for a scuttled vessel, possibly booby trapped to blow up passing shipping or meddling divers. The British team is blindly sifting the silt at the dockside by hand, hoping to feel for explosives without setting them off.

These were ordinary troops... they held out because they thought others were doing so elsewhere
Major Ray Tonner, Royal Marines
"Yes, it's dangerous," says British diver James, "but it's what we came here to do, to bring help to the people here as quickly as possible."

All this work is done under the watchful eye of colleagues scanning the area for Iraqi snipers. Small arms fire was still being heard here on Monday night.

Jason, a member of the Australian security cordon, has already taken three POWs. "Even when they surrender, you have to be careful and conscious of what's going on around you. You have to make sure your mates are okay and that it isn't an ambush. These guys just lay down, no problems, so we treated them with a soft, open hand."

Abandoned Iraqi uniforms spill out on to floor
Behind Jason's position, from where he scans the surrounding quay through his gun sight, is a dilapidated caravan. On the side a former defender has daubed "Down USA". Spilling out of the caravan are abandoned Iraqi uniforms.

Major Tonner says the stubborn resistance here was due to a lack of communication, rather than Iraqi loyalty to Saddam. "These were ordinary troops, not anything special. They held out because they thought others were doing so elsewhere."

So is the battle for Umm Qasr finally over? "There is a slight concern about how many of these local men were in uniform three days ago. They may not be carrying guns now, but they may still have access to them. That's a fear at the back of my mind."

The soldiers here are hoping the risk of such a return to hostilities will evaporate completely when the aid ships arrive, enforcing the message that the US-led forces are here for the benefit of the ordinary Iraqi and not to conquer the country.

"The Iraqis seem to want us here and are glad to see us," says one Royal Marine. "They're glad we're doing the job we are, but then I think they want us to leave."


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