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Pockets of insecurity mark southern Iraq

AZ ZUBAYR, Iraq—The Iraqi lieutenant colonel began to cry on Sunday when a cameraman tried to film his surrender to British soldiers near this dusty southern Iraqi town. My family is in Baghdad, he pleaded. Then he made a slitting motion against his throat.

"There are still a lot of Saddam's supporters here," said the officer, who was too terrified to give his name.

As U.S.-led coalition troops push toward Baghdad, they're leaving behind pockets of insecurity in southern Iraq where Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's agents continue to wield power and intimidate the local populace.

A patchwork of no-man's lands is springing up. Coalition forces don't control them—or, fearing local resistance, they've decided not to try to secure them.

U.S. and British forces were still battling to control strategic highways and bridges near two key towns in southeastern Iraq—Basra and Umm Qasr—and were facing unexpected resistance.

In Umm Qasr, a U.S. warplane bombed what soldiers said were members of a holdout regiment of Iraqi Republican Guards. U.S. and British forces are now expected to bypass Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, amid signs that coalition troops might not be welcomed.

Roads aren't secure for more than one or two miles. Soldiers manning checkpoints advise journalists not to travel farther because the area ahead isn't under their control.

Rumors are rife. In Safran, 20 miles west of here, local Baath party leaders were said to be planning an attack on a nearby British military post Sunday—prompting reinforcements to arrive.

At Az Zubayr, a few miles southwest of Basra, scores of Iraqis gathered near the scene of a recent firefight between coalition forces and the Iraqi military. Most expressed strong anti-American sentiments.

"Is the United States here to liberate or to occupy Iraq?" demanded Ali Ibrahim, 31, as he stood near a charred Iraqi military truck.

Many in the crowd had no electricity and water in their homes, and were expecting the United States to have helped by now. Some were cut off from families in Basra because of the fighting. Others were angry at civilian deaths from U.S. strikes or questioned America's intentions to help rebuild Iraq.

Some also said that officials from Saddam's Baath party were in the crowd, and others whispered that Iraqi intelligence agents were nearby. Murals of Saddam still papered the town.

The Iraqi lieutenant colonel was clearly scared when he approached two Western journalists and asked them to drive him to the checkpoint so he could surrender. Warily looking around for spies, he pulled his military insignias from the pocket of his gray traditional robe.

"I don't want anybody to see me," he said "They'll kill me in this town."

He said he was an Air Force commander attached to an Iraqi military division. On Saturday, his truck had come under an American missile strike near Az Zubayr. Most of his men, he said, fled to Basra. He decided to quit.

As if to underscore the insecurity, British soldiers at the checkpoint came under fire an hour after the lieutenant colonel surrendered.

Soldiers also said they find it difficult to know who's their enemy. Fleeing Iraqi soldiers have left behind hundreds of weapons, and they often fall into the hands of villagers, said British soldiers.

On Sunday, along the main highway to Basra, British soldiers found scores of Kalashnikov rifles and ammunition inside a water tank near the checkpoint. All a villager had to do was reach into the tank and pull out a weapon.

"Many of them did," said a British soldier, shaking his head.


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

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