British troops fight on 2 fronts around Basra

Forces trying to win trust of residents while fending off attacks by irregulars

War In Iraq

April 05, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEAR BASRA, Iraq - Two rocket-propelled grenades were launched at British troops on the outskirts of Basra yesterday, one striking a tank but doing little damage and the other exploding above civilians on the highway, sending them scrambling for cover and leaving an unknown number wounded.

The injured were behind the British front lines and were carried away by Iraqis.

Soon after the attack, British commandos pinpointed targets, and a volley of tank and machine-gun fire was unleashed that left eight Iraqi paramilitaries dead, according to the British soldiers.

So it goes here, near Iraq's second-largest city, Basra. Fighters loyal to the government in Baghdad, most of whom long ago tossed away their military uniforms, if they ever wore any, use the protection of the sprawling city of nearly 1.5 million people to attack.

The British troops move quickly to crush the attackers, but do not push far into the city.

After more than a week of fighting, the troops have moved only about two miles closer to Basra on the highway south of the city. Hoping to avoid what could be a nasty street-by-street fight, they are content to hold steady on the outskirts.

Whatever happens in Baghdad, the fight in Basra will provide an interesting study in trying to gain hearts and minds while attacking with tanks and bombs.

There are signs that the British strategy is working and the citizens of Basra are slowly coming to trust the foreign soldiers.

For instance, Basra residents came to the British yesterday to tell them where the grenade attack had come from, which allowed soldiers to quickly mark targets in a suburb they call Shanty Town, according to soldiers involved in the operation.

"I think they are getting a wee bit more faith in us," said Lance Cpl. Ronnie McCurdy, 23, of the Irish Guards.

The highway to Basra is straight and flat and is now the only way to leave the city. While many residents fled in the first days of fighting, there is a steady flow of people leaving the city in the morning and returning home in the evening.

Donkeys pulling carts full of tomatoes compete for space with ubiquitous orange-and-white cars that were once taxis.

In the evening, people return beneath a constant cloud of black smoke from oil fires to the sound of sporadic shelling and machine-gun fire.

About a mile from the city, the British seized control Thursday of what used to be a technical institute but had been converted into a compound from which Iraqi fighters were able to lob mortars and fire artillery at British forces.

Yesterday, they fought Iraqi snipers who had returned to the compound.

"We are just working our way forward as best we can," said the section commander, Lance Sgt. Glenn Stevenson, 28.

But the fight in Basra consists not just of the military challenge of dealing with Iraqi troops dressed as civilians. Real civilians have to be persuaded that the British troops are a force for good.

That is much trickier. British soldiers handed out pamphlets yesterday showing a bearded Arab man shaking hands with a smiling Western soldier. The paper read: "This time we won't abandon you. Be patient, together we will win."

Muhammad al-Sadi needed more immediate answers.

"I lived here with my wife and my children," al-Sadi said, standing outside the gates of the Basra Institute of Technology, where he was a professor of mechanical engineering. "When the fighting and the shelling came, we had to run away."

He said he had returned home because he had fled without money or his wife's medicine. While he said he did not like Saddam Hussein, he said that at least the Iraqi leader never destroyed his home.

"This is the fault of the Americans," he said as he pointed to the bombed-out wreckage of a Volkswagen Beetle belonging to his friend Hamid.

The front of the school is pockmarked from machine-gun fire, and sections of the front walls are charred black from days of bombardment by the British. Still, a larger-than-life poster of Hussein just beyond the entrance remained relatively unscathed.

Beneath a smiling Hussein, there was a sentence in Arabic: "Good Leader to Good Pupils."

Although the Red Cross went to Basra to take supplies to four hospitals yesterday, there is still virtually no aid flowing into the region. The people in Basra say they have enough to survive, but across the south increasing desperation is evident.

People leaving the city said they believed that the Baghdad government was still in control. Outside the city, they say, no one is in control.

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