Monday 5 May 2003
The mood is changing for the worse in Umm Qasr where food and medicine is desperately needed, writes Mark Baker from southern Iraq.
This is the way the war ends: not with the jubilation of the liberated but with the whimpering of ragged children. "Water! Water!" they cry, running from the roadside towards passing cars, thrusting their fingers towards their mouths in the salute of the thirsty.
At the local school, a crowd of mothers swathed in black queues in vain for Red Cross handouts of enriched biscuits for their infants. At the hospital, hundreds of sick and injured besiege a handful of exhausted and despairing doctors.
In the hot, dust-blown streets and around the empty market, groups of unemployed youths stare at foreigners with sullen resentment.
It was meant to be different. The port town of Umm Qasr was where the American flag was first raised at the end of March by excited US marines scenting the coalition victory that would soon spread across Iraq.
In the early days, after the first battle of the war was won and the sporadic resistance subdued, many of Umm Qasr's residents came out of their mud-brick houses to welcome the invaders. Now they throw stones at the military.
The Americans have moved on, their presence marked only by the endless convoys of trucks rolling north out of Kuwait towards Baghdad to service the occupying army and the US-led interim administration.
The blackened and rusting wreckage of Saddam Hussein's broken army that litters the highway is now joined by the victors' debris of empty ration packs and plastic water bottles.
Control of Umm Qasr has been handed to the Spanish, whose soldiers rarely venture far beyond their heavily guarded headquarters inside the port.
They have reason to be wary. The talk on the street is that remnants of Saddam's Baath Party are regrouping with military supporters who melted back into the civilian population when the coalition forces first swept through.
Large quantities of weapons and ammunition - including rocket-propelled grenades - have been stolen in recent days from poorly guarded Iraqi military stockpiles nearby.
"Everyone was happy when the soldiers came here to get rid of the old regime but now people are wondering what this so-called freedom has brought them," said the director of the local hospital, Dr Akram Gataa.
Each day he and six colleagues treat up to 1000 patients in a dilapidated compound with limited supplies of medicines.
"The biggest problem is that the people have no money and no jobs," he said. "The economy has collapsed. The cement factory, the grain silos and the port have shut down. There is nothing in the markets and the prices of everything have risen three and four times."
Limited emergency food relief and medical supplies have been trucked in from Kuwait along with irregular tanker deliveries of water donated by the Kuwaiti Government. But everyone says it is not enough for the population of about 50,000 people living in the area.
Some of the help has proved useless. A shipment of Australian wheat that arrived with great fanfare had to be rerouted to Kuwait because there were no facilities to mill it into flour.
At the makeshift Red Cross office, desperate mothers are being turned away.
"There are so many families. Thousands of people are asking for help but we have very little to give them," said Red Cross worker Salim Kamil. "Yesterday we gave out 126 boxes of biscuits for the children, but now it is all finished. These people need more help. There is a lot of disease and sickness and people are coming here from far away to try to get assistance."
At the school, where classes have resumed after Australian naval clearance divers swept the area for unexploded ordnance, teacher Eman Awda said many of her students were in poor health. "We need everything. More water, more food and gas for cooking. Most of the people are in a very difficult situation now," she said.
The plight of the people of Umm Qasr distresses many of the Australian divers based at the nearby estuary port of Az Zubayr, but they have neither the resources nor the mandate to get involved in humanitarian relief work.
"If the Yanks were serious about changing things and bringing a better life for these people, they should have had trucks with food and water following their tanks straight in here," one senior member of the Australian team said. "Instead they have abandoned these poor Iraqis."
Dr Gataa said the mood of the local population was rapidly turning from frustration to resentment and anger.
"The Americans and the British promised everything but brought nothing," he said.
"All of us will fight them if they stay here too long. No Iraqi will accept this turning into the occupation of their country," he said.
If America and its allies lose the peace in Iraq, look no further than Umm Qasr.
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