In port city, test case for rebuilding

Cooperation: The coalition begins the process of rebuilding in Umm Qasr, an effort that includes the founding of a town council.

War In Iraq

April 16, 2003|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

UMM QASR, Iraq - Children begged for water, the schools remained closed and cranes in the once-busy port stood idle, but members of a newly formed town council stepped forward yesterday to declare a new era.

"I would like to welcome you to liberated Iraq," Najim Abdul Madhi, a secondary school teacher, announced on the steps of a former hotel that has become an ad-hoc city hall. "It is a place you cannot forget anytime."

There was no mistaking the irony of his words. Madhi spoke eloquently of Iraq as the cradle of civilization where "the first wheels turned," but he also wanted the United States and Great Britain to know that their work was just beginning. The same people who hailed the fall of Saddam Hussein are waiting with an uneasy mix of expectation and desperation for their liberators to put their town back together.

The fighting brought practically all economic activity to a standstill. Not only is Umm Qasr's port largely idle and its 2,000 employees out of work, but half the merchants in the town's dusty market have nothing to sell. Water delivered through a pipeline from Kuwait flows intermittently, and the townspeople hold different views of whether it is safe for drinking or just washing.

Boys and girls run barefoot on the streets, their schools closed until U.S. and British forces repair damage brought by the war, looters and years of neglect. Some of the children wave Iraqi dinars bearing the visage of Hussein at foreigners, hoping to trade them for water, candy, anything.

For all its decrepitude, Umm Qasr is a test case for reconstruction. It is the first city where the invading powers have moved in to begin the process of rebuilding, an effort that includes the anointing of the town council and the recruitment of a local police force to bring order.

Democracy this isn't, but many in the town consider it a start. Included among the seven councilmen are teachers, lawyers and religious leaders. Some had greeted the British and American forces when they first entered the city, showing them where government offices were located. Military officials say a larger number stepped forward to lead, but they sifted out some whose allegiances were in question.

`Power to help us'

The chosen were assigned specialties: health and public service, trade and industry, education, and relations with foreign governments and humanitarian groups. But Mahdi, a well-spoken man who appears to be about 50 years old, deflected questions about how the council would function, preferring to focus on the role that the foreigners he called liberators could play in the town's renewal.

"You who destroyed this regime, which lasted 35 years, in 20 days - you have the ability and power to help us and cooperate with us," he said, flanked by his fellow councilmen.

"You should know that we will cooperate with the U.N. as well. They promise to provide us with many opportunities of jobs, repairing schools, making gardens, bathing streets. We need more and more projects to cover employment."

The town is a grid of bland concrete-block buildings. Most of the neighborhood streets are sand, and people work against nature to clear a navigable path.

Two paved but heavily rutted streets run through the forlorn market in the center of town. Felah Hassan sat by his shuttered food store with a dozen friends, all of them out of work. Hassan, who is 40 and has a wife and five children, said he had had nothing to sell since the war began. Before the war, he sold Pepsi and fruit.

"We have no job, no money, no food," said Hassan, a tall man with a graying beard who wore a flowing white robe. "The port, there is no work at all for these men. They have no money to buy water, to buy food."

Hassan's family is not starving - not now. About a month ago, his family received its ration of rice, bread and other staples through the United Nations' oil-for-food program. It is meant to last two months, and Hassan can only hope that the next shipment arrives in time or that the town's economy is reborn.

Despite the uncertain future, Hassan said he is glad that the Baathists have fallen. Gesturing to his friends, he said practically each had a brother imprisoned, tortured and killed - "His brother, his brother, his brother," he said.

"Sharon not do this," he said, using Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a point of comparison. "Only Saddam do this."

`We killed them'

The troubles came first in 1991, when the regime defeated a rebellion in this largely Shiite region with wanton slaughter. Another round came in 1998, he said, when the regime felt its hold threatened again.

When coalition forces drove the Baathists out, the townspeople were free to turn on party officials who hadn't fled.

"When the day came, we killed them," said Hassan. "The Baath people are afraid to sleep. Baath Party is scared."

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