- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 15, 2003

BASRA, Iraq — British forces formally handed over control of the port city of Umm Qasr to a civilian government yesterday, the first such turnover since the war in Iraq ended.

The handing over to a 12-member council in Umm Qasr was done in a small ceremony in the town, with the former military governor, Lt. Col. Peter Jones, presiding.

“This is the first step towards turning Iraq back to its people,” Flt. Lt. Peter Darling said.

Meanwhile, in the north, heavily armed U.S. Army forces stormed a village near the city of Tikrit before dawn, seizing more than 260 people, including a man on the list of most-wanted former Iraqi officials.

U.S. troops encountered no resistance during the five-hour sweep, and most of those detained were released, the military said.

The U.S. Central Command in Qatar also announced the arrest of another most-wanted figure — Fadil Mahmud Gharib, the former Ba’ath Party chairman for the Babil district, who was No. 47 on the list.

Umm Qasr, a town about 50 miles southeast of Basra and with a population of nearly 50,000, was one of the first military objectives for coalition forces who wanted to secure Iraq’s only deep-water port. After days of intense fighting, British and U.S. troops took control of the town and its port, considered the chief entry point for trade and relief aid into southern Iraq.

During the past month, British forces have helped restore electricity, water and other basic services in the town. The humanitarian situation there was stabilized within a couple weeks.

British troops will retain control over the port, but all other civil administrative duties will revert to the town council, Lt. Darling said. It will be responsible for everything from schools and hospitals to a municipal police force.

The council is made up of volunteers, including professionals and religious leaders. However, elections will be held in the next couple weeks to confirm the people’s choice, he said. There had been some dispute over a previous group of council members, who residents said were corrupt and ineffective.

Several other town councils have been set up throughout the country, but the Umm Qasr council will be the first to take over control of a town from coalition forces.

In the raid near Tikrit, five Iraqi special security forces officers also were caught. They included two army generals and a general from Saddam Hussein’s security forces who had disguised himself as a shepherd. Tikrit is the deposed leader’s hometown.

U.S. officials said one of those arrested was on the list of “top 55” wanted ex-officials, but they did not give the suspect’s name. Agence France-Presse, quoting local residents and officials, said it was Abdel Baqi al-Karim Abdullah, the Ba’ath leader of northeastern Diyala province. He is the five of diamonds in the U.S. pack of cards handed to troops in the hunt for fugitives from Saddam’s regime.

“We’re going to continue to hunt them until they get so tired of running that they give themselves up or we catch them,” said Maj. Mike Silverman, operations officer for the 1st Brigade of the 4th Infantry, the Army division that staged the raid.

Commanders for the 1st Brigade had been planning the raid, dubbed “Operation Planet X,” for a week, after receiving a tip that the men were living in the area.

About 2 a.m. yesterday, U.S. troops formed a cordon around the outer perimeter of a nine-block area. The military operation involved more than 500 soldiers, who sealed off the village and went house to house. About 200 houses and outlying buildings were searched, and the sweep ended at 7 a.m.

Maj. Silverman said no one shot at U.S. forces during the maneuver.

Among those taken into custody were some teenage boys and elderly men. Each was zip-cuffed — their hands were tied with plastic — and ordered to sit or kneel on the roads outside their homes. Many were kept in custody outside a large mansion with high walls.

Eighteen Bradley Fighting Vehicles, 12 Howitzers and 35 armored Humvees secured the area as forces moved in. Six boats patrolled the nearby Tigris River during the maneuver, and Apache helicopters hovered.

Seventeen bricks of plastic explosives were seized from one house, military officials said, and a man toting an AK-47 assault rifle in a sniper’s perch was apprehended.

A large stack of new Iraqi currency was found at one house, the military said. At another, an Iraqi emerged carrying a camouflage military uniform top.

After the raid, two explosions were heard from an area close to the village. Military officials said they believed these were mortar rounds, but the blasts caused no damage.

“It went a lot smoother than we thought,” said Lt. Col. Mark Woemper, in reference to the raid.

Patrols had been combing the streets of the area discreetly to gather intelligence, and a drone surveillance aircraft had been providing up-to-date photographs and real-time video of the area for two days.

Elsewhere, soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division shot and wounded a looter in Mosul after being fired upon, U.S. military officials said. The shooting occurred a day after military officials, who had been criticized about the continued lawlessness in Iraq, denied issuing a shoot-on-sight policy against looters.

North of Tikrit, on the Tigris, U.S. forces saw a boat being loaded with cases of unidentified materials and fired a warning flare. The Americans came under fire from the boat and responded, and they said they believed they killed everybody aboard.

The U.S. military, meanwhile, said yesterday that a U.S. troop was killed and two soldiers were injured in an accident near Erbil in northern Iraq on Wednesday when their truck rolled over.

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