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Food-aid effort turns into melee

SHUAIBA, Iraq—Desperate Iraqis swarmed a truck filled with food and water Saturday in a chaotic scene that had U.S. soldiers shoving villagers and British tanks leveling guns on women and children in an effort to bring order.

No one was injured in the melee, and no shots were fired. But the scene was a reminder that nothing has proved easy so far in the coalition effort to oust Saddam Hussein, not even the effort to win hearts and minds with food aid.

"Get out of here now," one U.S. soldier screamed at villagers as he tried to push them away from the convoy. The villagers didn't understand English, and the soldier didn't speak Arabic. So they kept pushing.

A British soldier cocked his gun, its safety lock unlatched.

"Should I fire a warning shot?" another British soldier on top of a tank asked his superior, who shook his head.

Two yellow British tanks rolled forward. Their cannons swiveled toward the crowd, which included women and children, and intimidated them into an orderly line.

"The tanks were so scary," said Saad al Khouder, a wiry 15-year-old.

Minutes later, the crowd rose up again, forcing the soldiers to retreat and watch helplessly as young men swarmed the truck, shoving, pushing and fighting for whatever aid was left. A teen-age boy, apparently struck in the face, cried as frightened women melted back into the village.

"We did our best to regulate it, but in the end it became too much," said British Capt. Mike Ellwood of the 1st Battalion Cheshire regiment. "We didn't get the support from the local population and we didn't want to endanger the troops."

It was a repeat of the disorder last week in the border town of Safwan.

Saturday's chaos was especially disturbing since coalition forces, with tanks and armed vehicles for backing, thought they had found a solution to the food-distribution problems: using the same food-rationing system that the United Nations' oil-for-food program had employed until it was suspended when the war began. That program distributed 400,000 tons of food each month through 43,000 corner shops authorized to accept special coupons. An estimated 60 percent of Iraqis had used that system to obtain their food.

"The idea is to get the Iraqis to do as much as possible by themselves," British Capt. Ben Walters of the 2nd Fusiliers Regiment said before the convoy arrived in Shuaiba. "We want this (operation) to be the tableau for future operations."

At first, everything had appeared to be going according to plan. People lined up, clutching a stack of food-rationing coupons. Some also carried the identification cards of those who had lost their coupons, so that they too could receive water and a box that contained tuna, beans, juice, milk, biscuits and honey from Dubai and other Arabic-speaking nations.

"We've been drinking rain water and water from puddles," said Kazem Jazzar, whose infant daughter, Saja, had diarrhea.

"I feel like I'm going to get food," he added, staring at the crowd gathering peacefully in front of the soldiers.

Two hours later, the operation had broken down into pushing and shoving.

Who started the rush on the truck isn't clear. Nor was it clear whether the mayhem was a spontaneous rush, or something that someone in the crowd wanted to happen.

But it was clear that many residents didn't get their rations. Several called out, "Why? Why?" as they watched the strongest walk out of the crush with boxes of food.

"It's the (soldiers') fault," said Hassan Abdullah, who said he didn't get any of the aid. "They should have done this in a school."


U.S. Maj. Douglas Stelmach of the 402nd Civil Affairs Unit said he was disappointed with the way things turned out. He vowed that next time coalition forces would bring loudspeakers so they could speak to people in Arabic and find other ways for a smooth distribution of aid.

"We learned some lessons," he said. "I wouldn't call it a failure."


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

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