A tiny victory as water runs to Umm Qasr

Aid: The delayed arrival from nearby Kuwait may foreshadow the hurdles ahead in rebuilding Iraq.

War In Iraq

April 01, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

UMM QASR, Iraq - The wheelbarrow would not quite roll straight, but that did not stop the young man from filling it yesterday and pushing it away. Another man showed up in a little battered pickup truck with a big plastic basin in its bed. But most of the children, men and women arrived with small things, with empty bottles, plastic jugs, small trash cans, and even a vase or two.

They arrived, at the edge of their battered city, to carry away some of the first clean water they could get their lips to since the war began here.

Yesterday was another of those days when military officials presented journalists with pictures that showed progress being made to provide Iraqis with humanitarian aid but also gave a clear indication of just how much more progress will be needed. That water suitable for drinking has arrived here was an unmistakable accomplishment, but this is a city of about 45,000 people, a stone's throw from the Kuwait border, and the water arrived only yesterday, almost two weeks into the war.

Cities only slightly to the north, including Safwan, Khorramshahr and Basra and beyond, have water needs, too, but there is no telling when help will arrive because there is no telling when the fighting there will ease. And even in Umm Qasr, authorities were still battling bandits who were stealing the water so they could sell it at black-market prices.

Umm Qasr had been without water since shortly after the war began. Before then, plants in Basra, to the north, pumped water here that was fit for cooking or washing but not drinking. The drinking water arrived here in bottles or in tanker trucks and was sold at prices - 10 dinars a liter - that many people here could not afford.

Now a pipeline less than 2 miles long stretches from Kuwait and across a piece of desert in which even the few remaining trees appear browned with thirst. The pipeline leads into a British military encampment surrounded by fences and rolls of concertina wire. Water trucks are filled at the encampment, away from the locals, and driven into the center of Umm Qasr and as far north as Zubayr, but no farther. It is too dangerous farther north.

From that pipeline, members of the Royal Engineers, part of the British air force, rigged a narrow pipe that extends outside of the compound to a spigot under a giant tree with its trunk split down the middle, so that people can fill those wheel barrows, jugs and vases.

"Saddam [Hussein] has used water as a means of control for a long, long time, as a very effective weapon to keep these people down," said Brig. Shawn Cowlam. "This is our way of giving some control directly back to these people."

Umm Qasr was supposed to fall soon after the first bombs on Baghdad did, and water rushed in soon after that. But the expected uprising here has not materialized, and up to 100 Iraqi soldiers remain hidden in the town, military officials said. So the progress can be measured in the drips of water spilling from the spigot.

The biggest problem the military has had here is convincing people that they do, indeed, have control - if that is even true. Mindful of Hussein's wrath in southern Iraq in 1991, when thousands were killed after an uprising quashed by government tanks and systematic torture, people here are still afraid of Hussein.

The journalists who arrived with the military were not permitted outside the compound and into the city's streets because their notebooks, and especially their cameras, are feared because they are associated with the tools of Hussein's secret police, military officials said.

Col. Steve Cox, the military commander in charge of security here, said pictures of Hussein are still found all over town, on practically every corner, and while a few have been defaced, they have not been torn down.

He has ordered his troops not to touch the pictures.

"These pictures were put there, I'm told, so that everybody knew he was always watching them," Cox said. "I'd rather they reach the point where they are comfortable that Saddam is no longer a threat to them and show they are coming along by taking care of those pictures themselves.

"Understand that these people were virtually enslaved for the past 30 years," he continued. "We've been trying to undo their fears in only the eight days we've been here."

The fears, though, at least to an extent, appear justified. Reporters arrived with at least 15 soldiers carrying rifles and wearing flak jackets under a piercing hot sun. Along the perimeter of the compound, deep trenches were dug for soldiers to jump into should an attack come, and the doors to deep concrete bunkers covered with hills of sand were open, just in case.

The water was a gift from Kuwait, which officials on hand reminded reporters of in four different speeches. Up to 2 million liters of water will flow into the compound each day, but even that will fall short of what people need, when those farther north are counted.

"We are not here to deliver aid in any long-term sense," Cowlam said. "We are filling a gap until [private aid organizations] can get here. What we are providing is some assurance that the coalition can be trusted and Saddam is through. We think we have made dramatic progress in that regard."

Perhaps. As four open trucks of reporters and armed soldiers left the compound, several Iraqi children chased them, including one pretty little girl in a pink dress who finally stopped and blew a kiss.

The line at the spigot, though, remained.

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