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U.S., British troops welcomed, denounced in Iraqi town

SAFWAN, Iraq—This small border town was a picture of contradictions Saturday as some residents warmly embraced American and British forces and others angrily denounced them for causing civilian casualties and failing to provide water and electricity.

The local headquarters of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party lay in shambles, its windows smashed and the gates wide open for any curious Iraqi to enter. Not a single portrait of Saddam was visible.

"We woke up in the morning happy," said Saffra Haider, 32, a farmer with three children, referring to when the U.S. troops came through Safwan. "It was the best celebration in 35 years—from the time the Baath Party came to Iraq."

A reed-thin boy who gave his name only as Muhammed looked on forlornly as 38 Iraqi soldiers who drove down from Basra to surrender were placed in a barbed war enclosure and given food by British troops. He said Saddam's government executed two of his brothers on flimsy charges.

"It was a cruel regime, and they executed everybody for the simplest reason," he said. "For one word, you'll get executed."

But a crowd outside this town's only hospital also denounced the American and British invaders, saying they had killed innocent civilians. As a single nurse treated the injured inside, the crowd stopped two cars of Western journalists, and demanded they step out of the car "to see the bodies."

"If the British and Americans kill more innocent people, we're going to turn against them," screamed one.

"They are supposed to help us, not kill innocent people."

It was impossible to know how many Iraqi civilians might have been killed or wounded in military action since U.S. and British forces crossed into southern Iraq near here Friday. A British officer put the number at "few."

"The American airplanes came and killed two innocent people—a 70-year-old man and a 16-year-old boy. They are buried over there," said Salem Muhsem Salem, pointing at a spot underneath the expressway.

A woman in the back of a pickup truck on the road from Basra showed a gash in her leg and said she was caught in an air strike on the outskirts of Umm Qasr in the southeast.

"I was hit by the Americans," she said.

Moments later, another pickup truck arrived. It contained 6 women dressed in black who were wailing next to the bodies of two male relatives. The men were killed during an assault on Basra, they said.

Second Lt. Russell Cowhig of the British Royal Military Police said the men died in "some kind of an explosion." He said civilian casualties had been few.

Since the town fell, the police and other officials who keep the law have fled or melted away. But while U.S. and British troops guard the outskirts of the town, they have not made keeping law and order a priority in Safwan.

"We have no electricity, no water, no petrol, and no police," said Hamed Saad, a farmer and father of nine as he waited in line to buy a jerry can of gasoline. "We live like animals. Whether under Saddam or the U.S., it's the same. People are not happy."

"All we're doing right now is controlling the highways, not policing," said Lance Cpl. David Estrada, a Marine military policeman from San Diego stationed outside Safwan. "They do whatever they want pretty much."

Some residents pointed their thumb to their mouths—to show they are thirsty. Others beg marines for food—or to use a cellular phone to call relatives in other countries for help.

"They keep on coming," said Staff Sgt Brian Konig, 36, an 18-year from Oceanside, Calif.

"Mothers with their little kids. How do you say no to them?"

Some of Safwan's residents wondered if the Bush Administration will keep its promise to rebuild Iraq. The last time the American soldiers were here—during the 1991 Persian Gulf War—they pushed out Saddam's troops only to leave soon after.

"I hope this won't be a repeat of 1991," said Taher Salegh, 29, a trader.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): SAFWAN