- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2003

UMM QASR, Iraq Seven dusty, battered trucks rolled up with their precious cargo of food and water yesterday, defying sandstorms and defiant Iraqi gunmen to deliver the first humanitarian aid to reach this vital southern port.
British forces waiting in Umm Qasr immediately began to distribute yellow meal packets and bottles of water to cheering youths, who had been confined to their homes during days of fighting.
Hours earlier, the local headquarters of Saddam Hussein's ruling Ba'ath Party had been set on fire and the town's top party official had fled as organized resistance much of it from irregulars loyal to Saddam's brutal son, Uday dissolved.
The major relief effort planned for southern Iraq will have to await the imminent reopening of the town's port, but yesterday's delivery served an important symbolic purpose for both U.S. military authorities and the food's Kuwaiti donors.
Scores of reporters accompanied the aid convoy from Kuwait, which was to have had as many as 30 trucks if not for a swirling sandstorm that cut visibility to about 100 yards.
"This is not a major distribution, but it demonstrates that we're here to help," said Col. Dave Blackledge, commander of the Army's 354th Civilian Affairs Brigade, based in Riverdale Park, Md. "It is important to us, and to the Kuwaitis, to show we support the Iraqi people."
A second three-truck food convoy organized by the Kuwaiti Red Crescent Society arrived in the border town of Safwan, where dozens of hungry men and women scrambled for food packets, many of which split or landed in pools of rainwater.
Some Iraqis, apparently wary of government agents in the town, greeted the convoy with chants of, "With our blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you, Saddam."
But one student made a thumbs-up sign and said in broken English, "We need water. America good, British good."
Coalition forces had declared themselves in control of Umm Qasr on the first day of the ground offensive last week but soon found themselves bogged down fighting irregular Iraqi elements, some of them in civilian clothes.
Much of the resistance, which held up the food aid for days, was believed to have come from henchmen of Uday Hussein, who for years ran an extensive smuggling network out of the town.
Distant gunfire and explosions yesterday indicated that the area was still not entirely subdued. Brig. Jim Dutton of the Royal Marines boasted to the Associated Press that "Umm Qasr is now secure as a port and as a town," but U.S. military officials said it was still dangerous at night.
One Iraqi rocket struck near the port yesterday evening, sending off a shower of small explosions and prompting hundreds of British and U.S. troops to don full chemical gear and gas masks for half an hour.
More substantial food aid was expected to reach the town soon with the arrival of the British logistical ship, the Sir Galahad, carrying a cargo of water and a quarter-million daily food rations, as well as flour and rice. Officials said the military vessel had to be used because silt has made the port too shallow for conventional cargo ships.
The Kuwaiti government donated yesterday's truck cargo in a high-profile effort to show support for Iraqi civilians.
Kuwait has drawn criticism in the Arab world for hosting the U.S. invasion force. By delivering humanitarian assistance swiftly, it hopes to make peace with the Iraqi people while stabilizing the situation enough to keep hungry or frightened civilians from fleeing into Kuwait.
Umm Qasr, Iraq's only port, has been used to deliver more than 60 percent of the food items imported by Iraq under the 7-year-old U.N. oil-for-food program, and U.S. officials say it is an important showcase for coalition intentions to rebuild the country after it ousts Saddam's regime.
Iraqis have about five weeks of food left, according to estimates by the World Food Program, but the most pressing need at present is water.
U.S. officials say the Iraqis have sabotaged the pumping stations that provide the main supply of drinkable water for the region from Basra. Some water was trucked in Tuesday by British soldiers, who pumped it out of the back of a truck at the Umm Qasr marketplace.
British firefighters yesterday were rigging up a system to pump seawater, if necessary, from an enormous bladder on the back of a truck. Salt water rots and rusts the equipment, they say, but they suggested that no one whose house is on fire would complain.
In Rome, officials of the World Food Program said the U.N. agency would make the biggest single request for cash in its history more than $1 billion to help feed the war-stricken nation for about six months.
"This could well turn into the largest humanitarian operation in history," said agency spokesman Trevor Rowe.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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