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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 April, 2003, 14:25 GMT 15:25 UK
All aboard the Basra express
By Rupert Wingfield Hayes and Jennifer Glass
BBC correspondents in Umm Qasr

The first train of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq has left the southern port of Umm Qasr on a journey to Iraq's second city, Basra.

British soldiers by train in Umm Qasr
US and British forces are trying to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure
On board to test the railway line were local dignitaries, British military brass and a large contingent of international media.

The largely ceremonial train journey began amid much fanfare to the strains of a British military band.

It is part of an effort by British and American forces to get Iraq's infrastructure working again and to help Iraqis get their lives back to normal.

'Team effort'

A British military band played as the Iraqi engineer pulled the train out of Umm Qasr.

Iraqi man applying to be police officer shakes hands with British soldiers interviewing for posts
British forces have been attempting to put an Iraqi police force together
Colonel Paul Ash of Britain's 17th Port and Maritime Regiment, said he hoped the train would eventually run all the way to Baghdad.

"It's a team effort, very much a team effort," he said.

"We've got soldiers from the British army, soldiers from the American army, but also more importantly, Iraqi locals.

"It's their train, it's their line, it's their country and they're running it and they're doing all the driving."

Brief journey

But while the trip was billed as going to Basra, it never actually got there.

Getting the line running again also serves another important purpose - sending a strong signal to the local community that life here is returning to normal
Instead, it trundled north across the desert for about half an hour, often at no more than walking speed, before grinding to a halt, going into reverse and heading back to Umm Qasr.

On board British military brass sipped tea and nibbled, rather embarrassingly, on ham sandwiches.

The local dignitaries declined politely and stared out of the window.

Feeding the people

It was all slightly surreal, but as the British military were at pains to point out, it did all have a serious point.

Umm Qasr is Iraq's only deep water port, and the railway is a vital lifeline for bringing in the huge quantities of material that will be needed for rebuilding Iraq and feeding its people.

Over the past few days, British and Iraqi engineers have been working feverishly to repair the line and to clear it of unexploded bombs.

Getting the line running again also serves another important purpose - sending a strong signal to the local community that life here is returning to normal.

Regime remnants

On Friday, water began running from the taps in Umm Qasr, and a new police force of about 20 men has been patrolling for a few days.

The town council in Umm Qasr has been meeting for nearly two weeks and seems to have the support of the people.

In Basra, however, efforts to create a local council and police force have come under criticism.

Local Iraqis say that town councillors and some policemen were connected with Saddam Hussein's regime and should not be in power now.




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