Baath Party stronghold Basra appears to fall to British forces

Foot soldiers moving through center of city

residents loot buildings

War In Iraq

April 08, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BASRA, Iraq - Iraq's second-largest city fell to British forces yesterday as foot patrols moved through the heart of town, filling the vacuum left by fleeing Baath Party leaders.

Though gunshots echoed through the mud-brick warren of the old-town section, where an unknown number of die-hard Iraqi fighters were hiding, there appeared to be no organized resistance.

"We're walking all the way through Basra," said Maj. Tony Booth, who was with a company of Britain's 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment, the first foot soldiers into the town after the Desert Rats of Britain's 7th Armored Brigade and other units stormed the city Sunday.

A British military spokesman said troops in the city had found a body that may be that of Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as "Chemical Ali" for ordering poison gas attacks against Iraqi Kurds in 1988. Majid, a first cousin to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, was charged with defending the southern front. He is believed to have died in an airstrike on his Basra home two days ago. Two bodies were recovered from the building, including that of his bodyguard.

Basra residents gathered on street corners along Arabian Gulf Street, a wide avenue that bisects the city, to watch the troops as well as the tanks and Warrior armored fighting vehicles that rolled slowly along the streets to back them up.

"The people's army and fedayeen just dissolved away Saturday at 10 a.m.," said Maher Badr Ali, sitting outside his house as the soldiers walked past.

Yet all was not quiet. The disconcerting pop of small-arms fire, occasionally met by the earsplitting bang of a Warrior's 30 mm cannon, sent people sprinting for cover throughout the day.

The periodic gunbattles did not stop hordes of people from streaming into damaged or abandoned building to pull out anything of value. The streets were filled with Iraqis carting off file cabinets, desk chairs, carpets and ceiling fans - even kitchen sinks - as efficiently as army ants picking a carcass clean.

As the 3rd Battalion's Parachute Regiment moved into the University of Basra on the west side of the city to set up a base there, looters filed in and out of a hole in the iron fence 100 yards away, entering empty handed and returning with as much as they could carry from the school's offices and classrooms.

The lawlessness angered many Iraqis, who blamed the British for not protecting private and public property in the absence of other authority after their Sunday assault.

"The looters are burning our children's schools, and the British are not preventing them," a 26-year-old man shouted outside the university gates as dense, gray smoke billowed from a graduate school building where Iraqi paramilitary fighters had held out briefly the day before. "This is aggression, not liberation. They want to destroy Iraq."

Muhammad Muhammad, 31, an unemployed graduate of the university's business school, said: "We want the Americans and British to rid us of Saddam and leave, not to stay. We didn't fight them this time because they said they are going to liberate Iraq, but once we have our mosques back, I swear to God, if they stay one day longer, we will liberate our country with our own hands, to the last Iraqi."

Red Crescent minivans, staffed by young women in white smocks and headscarves, traced the route of Sunday's battle, picking up the bodies of fallen Iraqi fighters.

Along the Shatt al-Arab waterway on the east side of the city, British troops broke down the doors to one of Hussein's ornate palaces of carved teak, marble floors and vaulted ceilings, empty except for a flock of pigeons.

At the former Sheraton Hotel nearby, crowds pulled mattresses, lamps, sofas and the hotel's grand piano from the building as water poured from the balconies of rooms, from pipes damaged either by looters or by allied airstrikes.

British foot soldiers reached the hotel in the early afternoon but were met with gunfire. After a boom, two soldiers were seen dodging up a narrow smoke-filled street beside the hotel.

The mood among those not busy looting was largely celebratory: A crowd near the collapsed and scorched Baath Party headquarters had festooned one British armored fighting vehicle with plastic flowers.

"Long live the people, down with the dictator," read graffiti scrawled in Arabic on bus shelters. On the base of a statue of a lion someone had written in chalk, "Finally the fascist dictator has fallen."

But the feeling was by no means unanimous.

"Saddam is a great leader, and he is the father of the modern Iraq," said Najeeb al-Doussari, 40, a Basra taxi driver, blaming the city's fall on "Shiite beasts" and "those dwarves" in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. "The coalition forces are going to send us back to the Middle Ages," he said.

At the city's main hospital, the director, Dr. Moslim Mahdi, met a foreign reporter with weary anger.

"A colleague of mine lost 10 members of his family in the bombing," he said. As of four days ago, he said, the hospital had treated 1,200 people wounded in the invasion and counted 400 dead, the majority civilians. He said the number of dead and wounded had jumped to about 50 a day since then, but administrators had been too busy to keep count.

Despite the claims of numerous casualties, the hospital appeared largely empty.

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