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Saddam loyalists target Basra residents trying to leave, refugees say

NEAR BASRA, Iraq—Residents escaping from Basra on Friday described a city under the strict control of supporters of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein who have moved military equipment into residential neighborhoods and are preventing hundreds of people from fleeing.

Hundreds of others who attempted to leave Friday were stopped when Iraqi loyalists fired mortars and rifles as they were approaching a British military outpost, a British military spokesman said.

"They are killing women and children," Faisal Abid Niser, 28, said as he waited at another British outpost 8 miles north of Basra with his wife and two young daughters. "It was time to leave our home."

It was the first flow of refugees from the southern Iraqi city of 1.3 million since British troops began laying siege to Basra last week.

Most of the refugees described themselves as little more than human shields for the 1,000 Iraqi troops, most dressed as civilians, who are thought to still be in Basra.

Some said they were frightened by the coalition air strikes. They said four missiles struck Basra's radio station two nights ago, prompting many to think of fleeing.

They denied reports of a popular uprising against forces loyal to Saddam, saying the only revolt that took place was in a neighborhood where a Baath Party official tried to station troops in a house.

"There's no revolution in Basra," said Mohammed Abbas, a 29-year-old who said he was fleeing to his farm outside the city.

Another man, who identified himself only as Mohammed, blamed the lack of rebellion on the U.S. failure to back a revolt that was crushed by Saddam's Republican Guard after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. "They are still afraid of the government, " he said. "USA let them down and they were retaliated against by Saddam."

Refugees said people in Basra now talk of dying in one of three ways: at the hands of the paramilitary fedayeen, by American and British bombs, or from thirst and disease.

"There is so much oppression from every side," said a man who identified himself only as Niser. He sat in the back of a white minivan with his family and three bags of clothes. "Every time I walk I think of stepping on Saddam's face."

The refugees who clogged British military checkpoints along the highway from Basra to the southern border town of Safwan were in search of food and water, and a safe place in a nearby town to wait out the war. Cars were piled high with clothes, mattresses, even bicycles. There were empty containers for water and gas.

Refugees said Saddam loyalists still had a tight grip on Basra. Saddam's fighters, the refugees said, have positioned their military vehicles and weapons in urban neighborhoods. They are parked in schools and at street corners and even near a hospital, the refugees said.

"All the artillery and tanks are near our houses," Mohammed said. "And they are firing from there."

Refugees said many Iraqi soldiers had disguised themselves as civilians. Even checkpoints around Basra are manned by armed men in shirtsleeves or T-shirts.

Residents are afraid to speak publicly because they can't tell who is listening. "Just talking can get you killed," Mohammed said.

Saddam's fighters have been going door to door and forcing young men to join their ranks and to fight against the coalition forces, refugees said. If they refuse, the fighters threaten to kill them and their families.

Some of the refugees said they had tried to prepare for the war. Mohammed, who said he was a retired engineer, said he had placed all the glassware in his house on the floor so it wouldn't fall and had put thick tape on his windows. He stocked up on food and medicine. But like most Basra residents, he couldn't do much to prepare for the lack of water or for electricity blackouts.

Electric pumps power most of the water supply in Basra. U.S. officials have charged that the Iraqi military shut off the water, but there has been no independent confirmation of what took place.

Water is the biggest concern here. Many refugees said they had been collecting water from impure wells. Others said they were drinking salt water.

"I still feel sick from the water I drank," Niser said. "All the water in Basra is polluted."

Mohammed said many refugees hoped American and British soldiers would enter Basra. "Otherwise, we will all die at the hands of Saddam," he said.


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

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