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31 March 2003

Just a few pockets of control

Where were the flowers, or the jubilant cheers? On the road to Basra, Christina Lamb found neither.

By Christina Lamb

Dressed in military overalls and a camouflage hat from an army surplus store in downtown Kuwait City, I had sneaked on to the back of an American military convoy entering southern Iraq. As we crossed the border into the dusty flyblown town of Safwan, I looked for the crowds of joyful “liberated” Iraqis rushing forward, waving flags and bearing flowers.

Instead, some sullen-looking men standing by the roadside gestured angrily with their thumbs down. A few children threw stones at the tanks and one person after another held out their hands, begging for water. The Stars and Stripes that the marines had taken out on the border so they could fly it from an armoured vehicle was quickly put away.

Perhaps it is understandable why the people of Safwan might be less than enamoured with their liberators. Every day for the past week, thousands of tanks, armoured vehicles, heavy artillery batteries and troop-carriers have thundered along its main street, bearing the insignia of the best of British and American fighting machines. It is an awesome sight, and just watching such a display of military might for a few hours made it seem astonishing that any Iraqi could begin to imagine holding it off. Yet no one stopped to give the people any food or water, and a local doctor called Ali explained that the town’s own supplies of water had been cut off because of the fighting in Basra.

The convoy I had slipped into was clearly heading for Baghdad as part of the relentless push north-west, so I turned off the road and on to the highway to Basra. The strategic port, which is much dirtier and less romantic than the image one might have of the place from where Sinbad the Sailor set sail, lies just 40 miles from the Kuwaiti border. Back in London and Washington, it was being reported that the Pentagon had declared the city was “about to fall”; the vital 51st Division had agreed to defect.

There seemed no reason not to head up that way. Not far along under a bridge, a few British military police were guarding two groups of Iraqi prisoners, huddled in makeshift camps behind concertina wire under the hot sun. There were six officers, glaring at us, and roughly 30 soldiers, some of whom were conscripts, judging by their white vests rather than uniforms, their underfed appearance and lack of shoes. Across the road their AK-47s lay destroyed, having been driven over by the British troops, then smashed with a sledgehammer.

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I was looking at all this and sharing Ginger Snaps with the military police when there was the distinct crack of a rifle being fired. “Get down!” shouted the sergeant, pulling me behind the car, as I vaguely remembered from my hostile environment course that cars provide no protection from gunfire.

We managed to scramble into a nearby pit in the sand and for the next hour there was a tense exchange of fire, soldiers running forward and back, trying to identify the gunman. Dressed in civilian clothes, he and a few others disappeared into the grey dust of the desert. A little later two pick-ups of Iraqis drew up, one bearing a man who had been shot in the back and another with a woman badly wounded in the leg. She said her husband and brother had been killed.

Yet this was only a few miles along from Um Qasr, the small border port that we were originally told had been captured on the first night of the war, on 20 March, and at least nine more times since. Deciding the Basra road was too dangerous, I tried to head that way but was stopped by US marines, who said it was very dangerous. There was the sound of heavy firing up ahead. “I thought it had been taken,” I said. “Ma’am, it has been secured, but it’s not safe,” replied the marine.

That the small port proved so hard to capture, finally being taken after a six-day struggle, did not seem to augur well. Back in Kuwait City – where many locals have a text-messaging service on their mobile phones that alerts them to the latest developments – each time the message came through that Um Qasr had fallen, people laughed, just as they did when Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, described the town of 40,000 people as “the Southampton of Iraq”.

This was supposed to be the easy bit. The population of southern Iraq is mainly Shia; the Shias hate Saddam and his Sunni-dominated Ba’ath Party, and rose up against him in 1991 after the last Gulf war, only to be brutally repressed and their leaders executed. It is also the land of Wilfred Thesiger’s Marsh Arabs, whose marshes have been systematically drained by Baghdad.

“Um Qasr was a bit of a shock,” admitted Colonel Chris Vernon, spokesman for the British military, whose tanned face, swept-back hair and liking for phrases such as “I’m just in from the battlefield” are making him a star of the airwaves. “Intelligence is never 100 per cent, and we underestimated their resolve.”

In fact, the failure of local people to rise up against the regime this time round was not surprising, given how they were abandoned by the west last time. Moreover, while the Ba’ath regime is still in power, even if in its dying days, people are scared to make their feelings known for fear of reprisals.

The coalition forces were caught unawares by the emergence of the “irregulars”, people in civilian dress who may or may not be army, armed with AK-47s, pistols or rocket-propelled grenades, and wandering about taking pot-shots at western troops or journalists. Some are fedayeen, “the men of sacrifice”, a band of paramilitaries founded and led by Saddam’s elder son, Uday. Others seem to be ordinary people. Baghdad has been making much of the old man in a headdress apparently using his ancient Czech rifle to down an Apache helicopter.

All of which means the strategy of pushing relentlessly on to the capital, leaving the rear unguarded, has had to be suddenly rethought. The troops on the road to Baghdad may have had the fastest advance of any force in history but no one in Washington or London had bargained for a guerrilla war.

Nor had they bargained for local hostility in places like Safwan, which has become a no-go area, and where the coalition troops are clearly seen as an invading rather than a liberating force. The idea that Saddam might be removed only to be replaced by an American general, or even some cigar-chomping, paunchy Iraqi exile who hasn’t seen his country in 30 years, has not gone down well in southern Iraq.

This is not the view you get on television where, in their scramble to fill 24-hour rolling news, channels such as Sky News have been putting out everything unfiltered, reporting on 21 March, for example, that 20 per cent of the Republican Guard had defected, and that everywhere from Basra to Baghdad would fall imminently, causing many of us reporters on the ground to be asked by our news desks why we could not get into these places.

A distorted – if fascinating – view of the war has also come from the 500-odd reporters “embedded” with military units. Criticised for not giving journalists access during the 1990-91 Gulf war, the military sees the embedding idea as a great success. It has provided compelling television, with viewers able to watch real-time battles live on TV.

But the embeds are restricted in what they can report and, having spent weeks with their units, they so identify with them that I have heard TV reporters say “we are advancing on . . . ” or “we have just taken . . ” – which is just what the military hoped would happen. “Of course we will use the embeds,” said a British military spokesman. “It’s war, and in war you use everything at your disposal.”

As for the so-called “unilaterals” – those of us who wanted to be able to see both sides of the war – we have mostly had to beat a retreat back to Kuwait, where the Hilton has become known as Groucho-by-Sea, because so many British reporters are here. “Hell is a very small place,” said a colleague from Reuters, recalling shades of Vietnam as we stared out at the sandstorm, wondering when the south would come under the control of the 26,000 British troops struggling to secure it, and what (if anything) we could believe from military briefings.

As I write, the British military reports an anti-Saddam uprising in Basra. Maybe there is, maybe not. A few days ago, I was standing on the road to Basra, just along from where ITN’s reporter Terry Lloyd was killed that same day, and the British forces admitted that they were meeting “pockets of resistance”. To those of us on the ground, it seemed more like pockets of control.

Christina Lamb is a foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times