UMM QASR, Iraq—The first ship loaded with humanitarian aid steamed into Iraq's embattled main port on Friday, carrying hundreds of tons of water, food and medical supplies.
Just days ago, the supply ship Sir Galahad was landing invading British commandos onto the al Faw peninsula. On Friday, it offloaded 200 tons of bottled water and 400 tons of beans, rice, cooking oil and other supplies.
"It's been a long process," said Capt. Roger Robinson-Brown, the ship's commander. "But we want to do it deliberately and properly."
The Galahad had been expected several days ago, but was delayed by fighting in the town, bad weather and mines.
Dockworkers unloaded the ship even as an explosion followed by a plume of thick smoke shook the center of this port town of 4,000 people.
U.S. and British commanders blamed the blast on irregular troops and Baath party loyalists still active in the town.
"There are probably about 30 to 35 bad guys," said U.S. Navy Capt. Mike Tillotson. "They hide during the day and take pot shots at night. But the British commandos are using Northern Ireland tactics to find them."
The southern entrance to the town is carved with trenches, pocked with shell holes and crisscrossed with razor wire. Children paced the roadside begging from soldiers and reporters amid fortified bunkers and ruined houses.
Portraits of Saddam still hang everywhere. But a tile mosaic of the Iraqi leader at the port entrance now sports a bullet hole through his forehead, with "Fox Raiders"—the name of a coalition unit—spray-painted beneath.
Members of the U.S. Army's 757th transportation unit rested in the shadow of a cinderblock wall that bore graffiti in Arabic declaring "God Save Saddam" and promising death to coalition soldiers who remain in the town.
British commanders say that Umm Qasr's residents remain afraid of reprisals it they embrace their "liberators."
"These people have known nothing but Saddam for the last 30 years," said Col. Steve Cox, deputy commander of 3 Commando Brigade. "They don't know if we can beat Saddam.
"But each day there is more trust. Each say is a little step toward normality."
Cox said residents are secretly informing on the guerillas still in the town and have been giving the locations of weapons caches. And seized Baath Party records have provided commandos with names and addresses of Saddam's main supporters in Umm Qasr.
About 35 Baath Party loyalists have been captured so far, Lt. Col. Ash said.
The rest "can't get out now," he said. "But we're going to help them out in our own way."
About 40 stevedores have returned to jobs that paid the equivalent of 25 cents a day. Another 20 are expected soon. Iraqi middle managers are being recruited to run the port once larger ships of international aid begin rolling in.
The aid delivered Friday is "to fill the gap between liberation and (the arrival of) international humanitarian aid," said Brigadier Shaun Cowlam, commander of the British 102 Logistic Brigade. "We're not going to solve the big problem today."
The big problem is a growing humanitarian crisis in southern Iraq caused not only by fighting and destruction of infrastructure, but also the difficulty distributing aid in areas still showing Iraqi resistance.
Aid workers say guerrilla fighters were among the throngs that swamped a Kuwaiti truck convoy that delivered aid to the town of Safwan on Wednesday. The delivery turned into a mob scene, which was repeated during a delivery to the town on Friday.
"We've learned from that (Safwan)," said Lt. Col. Paul Ash, of the Royal Marines' Maritime Regiment, who plans tighter security at aid distribution centers.
U.S. and British engineers hope to have water lines running from northern Kuwait to Umm Qasr by Saturday.
The U.N. Security Council on Friday unanimously approved a resolution to restart the food for oil humanitarian program that was providing food to 60 percent of Iraq's 22 million people. It was suspended prior to the war.
British commanders here hope that the "big ships" carrying the aid can begin steaming into the ports within 30 days, perhaps the first as soon as 48 hours.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.