The Long Reach Of Saddam

Welcome to the Republic of Umm Qasr. Water comes out the end of a jerry-built pipeline from Kuwait. Security is provided by the British Royal Marines. There's a deep-water port, one of the finest in the Middle East, but only one ship has called so far--and no others seem on the horizon.

Electricity is nonexistent. The nights are dark and dangerous. The town's 40,000 residents are scared and angry. And this is what free Iraq consists of so far, after two weeks of war.

U.S. forces are deep inside Iraq, on the verge of taking Baghdad's international airport only a dozen miles from downtown. But in their race forward, they haven't paused to pacify any territory. That task has fallen to the British commandos and other units, some 26,000 in all, along with a smattering of U.S. Marines, who control the southeastern corner of the country and the area around Basra, Iraq's second-largest city.

The gateway to that area, and in a practical sense to Iraq, is the city of Umm Qasr. Officially, it's the only place that has been pacified. The rest of the British zone of operations, said British spokesman Col. Chris Vernon today, "is not safe." In Safwan, residents are still stoning convoys and disrupting traffic. In Az Zubayr, the British Black Watch regiments, crack troops who wear the coveted Desert Rats shoulder patches, patrol the streets in one neighborhood, while in another one Iraqi irregulars--or soldiers in civilian clothes, it's hard to tell which--hold five British soldiers, including a woman, prisoner in a shabby building. Up the road, British troops harass Iraqi positions on the outskirts of the city, but make no effort to take them.

Umm Qasr, though, should be different. "It's totally safe," declared British Lt. Mark Hankey as he took a group of journalists on one of what are now nearly daily tours there from neighboring Kuwait. At first glance, that may well seem true. On the road in across the DMZ from Kuwait, British commandos have occupied the old United Nations observation post; many off-duty soldiers could be seen sunbathing in bathing suits and playing football. Children lining the road are friendly, shouting "Water, mister!" and waving. Two portraits of Saddam Hussein have been defaced with splotches of blood-colored paint. A third bears a neatly placed bullet hole through the head. A Kuwaiti journalist, a young woman, cavorts suggestively in front of it as the cameras roll.

There's more to this than meets the eye. Those monuments were defaced by coalition soldiers, some of them egged on by journalists--not by locals. In the town proper, adjoining the sprawling port area, the fighting that raged fiercely here the week before has indeed died down and British and American soldiers go door to door hunting down Baathist party members and other regime hard-liners. But the atmosphere of terror remains. Our British guides refuse to allow us to go there, instead keeping us within the well-guarded confines of the port and away from the town. The official explanation is that Iraqis in the town are camera-shy and afraid that pictures of them will lead to retribution.

There is something to that, to be sure. It's well known now that Iraqis who publicly greeted the arrival of coalition forces in another border town, Safwan, to the west, later paid a heavy price. Coalition forces didn't take control of the town, and within days the pro-Saddam hard-liners reasserted themselves. One of the most widely disseminated television images was of a young man enthusiastically using his shoe to beat on the face of Saddam on a monument at the entrance to Safwan. That man, everyone says, is dead now. Someone else in Safwan, as President George W. Bush famously noted last week, had his tongue cut out for what he said. Others disappeared and were taken away to Basra.

The only people we can find to talk about this are half dozen port workers, among a couple hundred Iraqis who commute to their old jobs now under the direction of a British Navy harbormaster, Capt. Pete Smith. At first none of them will speak ill of Saddam or the regime. "He's the ruler," says one. "He's always there." But when the camera crews tire of their reticence and go away, they begin to open up. About Saddam? "We want what everyone in the world wants," says Hussein, a tugboat crewman. They begin naming people they know in Safwan, overrun well before Umm Qasr, who spoke out. "One even said, 'What took you so long?' when the Americans and British arrived. And now he's dead," said a dockworker named Khalid. "We hear from Basra that they're hanging them in the streets." In their own town, the coalition authorities are acting on tips and hunting down regime activists, but that still hasn't made them feel terribly safe. "You can never tell who is from Saddam's intelligence, and if I can't tell, how can the Americans and British? They can come in our homes any night and kill us any time," says an engineer named Ali.

The Shiite uprising of 1991 is very much on these men's minds. Another worker, a sailor on one of the port's two remaining tugboats, says everyone's biggest worry is that the American and British troops will "stop trying to get Saddam." He thinks the war may go badly and the Americans will cut a deal for peace. "Once they start negotiations with Saddam, we're all finished here." These men will be suspect just for stepping forward to work in the port. A British major, Tom Ellis, is listening. "That's not going to happen, I can assure you of that." But even so, he adds, "We understand that you are brave men to come back here."

We hear a very different story from some of our colleagues who have been staying, after a fashion, in the town of Umm Qasr. They sleep in their cars outside the gates of the British guarded ports. The town is so unsafe for foreigners that a house briefly occupied by French photographers was robbed three times in one day. One of the robberies was at screwdriver-point. Some of the journalists have been reduced to scavenging in the trash pit of the Royal Marines, looking for uneaten parts of their MREs. It's not that there's no food in Umm Qasr, not if you have money at least. It's just that residents have been refusing to sell to foreigners. Partly that's out of fear, but there's also a lot of anger.

In many practical ways, life is worse in Umm Qasr than it was under Saddam's regime. Residents had things like running water, electricity and gas for cooking. Thousands of locals had jobs in the port, however badly paid. Now most have none of that. The Kuwaiti-piped water is free, but entrepreneurs monopolize transporting it from the pipeline and charge plenty for it. Just how angry residents are was dramatically illustrated when a Chicago Tribune reporter, Laurie Goering, stopped on the town's main square during daylight. There were plenty of troops around, so she was probably safe. But a crowd of men began licking her windshield, until she was disgusted enough to leave. Not exactly a warm welcome.

The Brits are keenly aware of the problem. "We're doing our best to win over the people here," said Capt. Dan Pawson, of the Duke of Wellington's regiment, stationed outside Umm Qasr. "It's one of the things that the Brits are particularly good at." They have, for instance, been taking off their helmets and body armor when they patrol in towns. "Our position will improve a thousandfold once we get the water and power back on." Getting rid of all the Saddam agents, and the climate of fear in Umm Qasr, may prove a lot harder.

The port workers said they expect that once Saddam has been killed, the mood will change quickly. "He's the head of the snake," said Aaed. "Of course it would be over then." Until that happens, the rest of Iraq will prove even harder to pacify than the Republic of Umm Qasr.