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thedrifter
04-15-03, 06:52 AM
People in Basra Contest Official View of Siege
Life Was Mostly Normal, Residents Say; Doctors Report Many Civilians Killed

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 15, 2003; Page A13


BASRA, Iraq -- There was nothing resembling a popular uprising against the Iraqi militiamen who controlled this city during its 13-day siege by British forces. Life continued largely as normal in many neighborhoods, with police directing traffic and residents doing their best to avoid fighting.

Doctors at local hospitals treated scores of civilians wounded by British artillery and U.S. bombs during the siege, despite briefing-room claims of pinpoint accuracy. Many others were killed.

These conclusions about life under siege emerge from a week of interviews in Basra and they differ in many ways from accounts offered by military and other sources before the city's fall. Reports of large numbers of Basra residents being forced to take up arms and militiamen firing from behind human shields were similarly not borne out in the interviews.

People expressed more dismay at the looting and general lawlessness that followed the British entry into the city on April 6 than at the behavior of the Iraqi militiamen. People say they were largely able to stay away from the fighters, though sometimes they mingled with them in a false show of solidarity.

Hamid Azzawi, a medical school professor who lives a block away from what was the city's intelligence headquarters, said he served refreshments to militiamen who took up positions in sandbagged emplacements on his street. "They might say, you are obliged to leave this house," he recounted. "So you needed to supply them with tea, water and a big smile."

Basra was supposed to be easy pickings for U.S. troops and British soldiers who crossed the border from Kuwait on March 20. According to the original plan, British officers said, U.S. Marines would sweep through the city on their way north, and then hand it over to British troops to clean up remaining pockets of resistance.

But as one British officer said, when he arrived at Basra's southernmost highway bridge, which was supposed to be secure, there was intense firing from Iraqi mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. "Here it is -- it's all yours," the officer recalled a Marine telling him.

British commanders debated whether to enter the city, but decided a full-scale assault might cause many civilian casualties. So they stayed put, and a cat-and-mouse battle ensued.

The Iraqis had moved their T-55 tanks to the southern gateway to the city, near Basra University and facing the highway bridge. But whenever the British moved forward to engage those tanks, the Iraqis withdrew toward the city and the British held back.

At Basra University, Kadhin Ali, an English professor, said those tanks never moved far into the city and generally remained at the edge, to guard the gateway.

Like most professors on campus, Ali was part of a security team that was supposed to protect the university grounds. He initially turned out carrying an old AK-47 assault rifle. But he said that after the first few days, he and most of the other professors became frightened and fled to friends' homes, leaving only about a dozen hard-core members of the Saddam's Fedayeen militia on the campus.

Most of these fighters were young, teenagers even, with no military training. They were responsible for most of the rocket-propelled grenade and mortar attacks on British positions during the standoff.

According to one Iraqi resident familiar with their tactics, the Fedayeen members would typically go in a group of 20 to the southern edge of Basra, to the highway bridge linking the city to the town of Zubair. From there, they would split into three or four smaller groups and fire mortars or rocket-propelled grenades at British troops stationed on the bridge.

The Iraqis sometimes used the tanks stationed at the southern gateway to the city as cover, allowing them to operate out of the buildings of a technical college about a mile farther south, closer to British positions.

This Iraqi resident said British return fire was so accurate that out of those teams of 20 fighters, typically only three would return. British troops later overran the technical college, killing as many as 20 Iraqis inside, said Maj. John Cotterill, who is attached to the Irish Guards.

As for fighters situating themselves near civilians, Iraqis said in interviews that it was common practice for top government and ruling Baath Party officials to operate out of houses around the city, mostly in such affluent civilian areas as Ashshar that were home to academics, doctors and other professionals. "What happened is these people, Saddam's men, if you like . . . rent civilian homes and use that for their business," said Azzawi, the medical professor, referring to then-President Saddam Hussein.

U.S. intelligence officials found out about this and targeted some of those houses. One airstrike, on April 5, hit a house that was believed to be used by top Iraqi intelligence agency officials. Two bombs turned the house into a large crater but also demolished the home of Abid Hassan Hamoodi next door, killing 10 members of his family, including seven children.

"If they had any suspicion of anything there, they should have notified us to move from there," Hamoodi, 72, said in an interview.

British officers said they believed their targeting was accurate overall, and that many times requests to strike at targets were denied by senior commanders because of the risk of harming civilians. But they said that in any war, some civilian casualties are unavoidable.

British officers said throughout the standoff that their artillery fire was "degrading" the Baath Party's grip on power. "We were creating the conditions to enter," said Capt. Richard Coates, a British military spokesman inside the city. "We dislodged them."

However, many residents inside the city disputed whether the allied strikes had any effect in loosening the government's control. Instead, they described a city that functioned relatively normally until the British entered -- and many said the main fear was of artillery and airstrikes.

Andres Kruesi, a worker for the International Committee of the Red Cross who lived in Basra for 18 months, returned to the city during the siege to find it "firmly in Iraqi control."

Asked about a civilian uprising and militiamen firing on crowds to suppress it, Kruesi said: "I didn't see any of that happening. In the city, it was similar to before. It was the same city I had worked in for the last year and a half."

"The police were out. There was even traffic enforcement," he said. "My impression was they were in control."

Archbishop Gabriel Kassab, the Chaldean Catholic prelate in Basra who represents most of the area's small Christian community, said scores of people spent nights in St. Ephrem's Church, mainly to escape the artillery and air bombardment, but there was never a problem from the militia or Baath Party fighters in the city. "We left all the churches open 24 hours a day," he said.

Holding up a piece of shrapnel from a bomb he said landed just a few yards from his residence, the archbishop said: "Look here -- that is a gift, from [President] Bush to me. I will take it with me when I go to the United States."

On April 5, U.S. and British commanders thought they scored a major victory in Basra when they destroyed a compound that they believed was the hiding place of Iraq's local commander, Ali Hassan Majeed, a cousin of Saddam Hussein known as "Chemical Ali" for his use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in the 1980s. Some officers believed his death may have weakened the resistance and made it easier for British troops to eventually enter Basra.

Now some officers say they are unsure what happened. "He may be dead, or he may be alive," Coates said. "We think he's dead, but we don't know." He added, "Obviously, Elvis is alive for some people."

At one of Majeed's guesthouses, Mohammed Yahya, an unemployed 32-year-old, was scavenging recently for whatever the looters left behind. Yahya, who lives near the guesthouse on the banks of the Shatt al Arab waterway, said he saw a convoy of six or seven four-wheel-drive vehicles leave the compound early on April 6, heading for a northbound military road that cuts between palm trees close to the Iranian border.

Yahya, who said he often watched the comings and goings from the guesthouse, said the cars belonged to "some very important people." He added: "We don't know who occupied the cars. But it might have been Ali."

The British entered Basra that day with little resistance, finding most of the Iraqi fighters had abandoned the sandbagged emplacements they had built at government buildings throughout the city. Coates and others said Iraqis may have concluded that continued resistance was futile. Other accounts suggest that the Iraqi withdrawal was an organized retreat, not a last-minute flight. Several Iraqis who claim to have friends in the militia said an order went around early on April 6 that the fighters should stop resisting. Several people said the looting began even before the British entered, indicating that police, government security guards and militiamen had already left their posts.

Mochdad Fadhil, 44, a mechanical engineer, recounted that early that day, some army guards at a nearby compound often used by Majeed during the standoff came to him asking a favor. "The guards came and borrowed some civilian clothes," he said. "They came in their underwear."

"They needed a place to change," he said, adding: "There was no officer left when they came. All the officers were gone."


2003 The Washington Post Company


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