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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 May, 2003, 18:39 GMT 19:39 UK
Umm Qasr leads the way

By Jane Peel
BBC correspondent in Umm Qasr

Iraqi children talk to a British soldier in Umm Qasr
Now Iraqis can have a say in their own city administration

There was no cutting of a ribbon or unveiling of a plaque.

In fact, it could not have been a simpler ceremony.

A lieutenant colonel in the British Army, the sleeves of his desert fatigues rolled up in an effort to keep cool, said a few words, and that was it.

Umm Qasr was officially back in the hands of Iraqis.

Proud, but bemused

The event, if it can be called an event, took place on the steps of a hotel on the edge of this town of 45,000 people.

Lieutenant Colonel Peter Jones, commanding officer of 23 Pioneer Regiment, was there with the 12 local professional men who make up the new town council.

They stood there, looking proud, but somewhat bemused by the interest from the world's media.

The chairman of the council, Najim Abed Mahdi, said it was a day of great importance and he thanked the troops for liberating his people.

So little fuss, for such a significant event.

'Fraught affair?'

The people of Umm Qasr have not had a say in the running of their town in more than 35 years.

US marines in Umm Qasr
Umm Qasr was the first town to fall in the recent conflict

Now they are administering it themselves and making hasty plans for an election on Thursday next week.

Some, but not all, of the 12 existing council members who were appointed by the British will be standing.

Other people are expected to come forward from the local community.

It could be a fraught affair.

The first council set up in Umm Qasr disbanded in chaos after criticism of some of its members, and there are many people here with no experience of democracy.

On the streets of Umm Qasr, shoppers and traders showed little interest in the forthcoming election.

Some told me they had heard nothing about them.

Scepticism

This is a town with no broadcast or print media to keep them informed.

Umm Qasr is taking its first tentative steps towards democracy, and the rest of Iraq is watching
Others said they knew there was to be an election, but there were other things that needed to be sorted out first.

What was the point of having a town council if people could not get water in their homes, they asked, or if there were no jobs to be had?

There was some scepticism as to whether the council would be able to get anything done.

Umm Qasr is, however, well ahead of some other towns and cities in Iraq.

It was the first town to fall during the recent conflict, and the British have had almost two months to try to restore such infrastructure as there was before the war.

Public services have largely been restored.

New judges have been appointed from among lawyers not tainted by association with Saddam Hussein's regime.

Troop withdrawal

A police force has also been trained and officers are patrolling the streets on their own, even at night.

In contrast, in Basra - the region's main city - it is still too dangerous for night patrols to be carried out without the support of troops.

Umm Qasr is a town not without problems, but Colonel Jones believes the time is right for troops to withdraw.

Within two days of the handover, 200 British soldiers will leave.

One patrol of 30 will stay behind, just in case they are needed.

Umm Qasr is taking its first tentative steps towards democracy, and the rest of Iraq is watching.


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