Trapped In Southern Iraq

It's Sunday and we've been spending the day trying to find where we can go safely. We're a small group of "unilaterals"--journalists not embedded with any U.S. forces--well behind the American advance, well behind the front lines. And we've discovered that anywhere we go is quite unsafe.

Our morning began at Safwan, where we had camped out the night before with a detachment of British military police. We went on the road to Basra, which had been reported taken two days before, but discovered that it was blocked. In fact, one of our colleagues turned down a side road and came to an Iraqi army position. As we were heading back, we saw the usual--quite common--scenes of Iraqi prisoners being taken, surrendering to the nearest soldiers that they could find. Suddenly, a short time later, we all came under fire at one of those positions. We hid behind the vehicles while they brought their Warrior armored personnel carriers out and chased whoever it was who fired at us.

A little later we started talking to Iraqis who had seen the Kuwaiti plates on some of our colleagues' cars. We heard them say things like, "go back to Kuwait" and "we want to kill all Kuwaitis." Some people told us that even if the Americans brought in humanitarian aid, they would consider that the aid was paid for with their oil money and it wouldn't change their attitude at all.

We went back to our camp at what we call Spaghetti Junction--a cloverleaf of flyovers on an expressway. We were camped on one of the on-ramps. It seemed a good situation, because we were camped with a medical detachment of the British army as well as a British military police detachment. But no sooner had we started to make plans for cooking some sort of dinner then word came from some friendly locals that Baathist party members in a nearby town were meeting and plotting to attack our camp that night. We went to talk to the officers and military police, and they'd had two similar reports from informants.

While we all discussed what to do, the British officers suddenly ran out and said "everybody in their cars. Get out." They sent us up a highway, told us to go up 15 kilometers (about nine miles) and hide there. That's what we did for a couple of hours. A small detachment of soldiers found us and eventually escorted us to another location 20 kilometers (12 miles) further on. We went at a very slow crawl, with our lights out in the dark. The troops were very worried about an attack on the road.

This road is the main convoy route into the supply line, but the army's much farther north, heading toward Baghdad. Now it's been sundered by the possibility of an ambush.

We finally arrived at what the troops said was a safe place. When we stopped we could talk in whispers only. Things are much worse in places like Nasariya further north, where a supply convoy was ambushed and 12 persons taken prisoner--some of them paraded on TV, some of them apparently executed.

But in every direction we go, we're finding that it's unsafe country here. Qasr, the port that was supposedly taken last Thursday or Friday, is still being contested. Troops are bypassing Basra, the country's second major city, rather than trying to take it, but even there they haven't managed to completely subdue it. And they have this extraordinarily long supply line--at any point along it looks like there are still Iraqi elements who can break it.

It doesn't look like a very auspicious start. These are early days and perhaps things will start looking up later. But the victory parades and the throwing of roses and all that just isn't coming to pass.

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