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Brits set sights on eliminating Baath leaders

KUWAIT CITY—British commanders, plagued by guerrilla fighters and struggling to win over a frightened populace, said Saturday that eliminating officials of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party was now their "primary focus and our military main effort."

British forces are targeting the party in an effort to break the guerrilla resistance that has plagued coalition troops throughout southern and central Iraq.

"The targeting and eradication of the Baath Party is now the critical effect we need to achieve, and the British military's main ambition," British spokesman Col. Chris Vernon said. "We must convince the people to have confidence to rise against the effective political control of the Baath Party and the irregulars who do their bidding."

Part of that effort was an incursion early Saturday into central Basra by Britain's Black Watch regiment. The unit, which included tanks, destroyed two statues of Saddam.

"The purpose of that is psychological, to show the people we'll be waiting,'' Vernon said. "It also should have sent quite a shock to the Baathist and irregular organizations in Basra."

British commandos also have captured a key party leader in Az Zubayr, and they are using what they call "Northern Ireland tactics" in the port city of Umm Qasr and other areas to cut Saddam's reign of terror over the people. Their troops have seized Baath Party records in Umm Qasr that they say provide "names and addresses" of party leaders in southern Iraq.

Coalition commanders at the onset of war had expected the Iraqi people, particularly the majority Shiite population in the south, to rise up as British and U.S. troops advanced to Baghdad.

But Iraqi paramilitary units, controlled by Baath Party leaders, have continued to cow the people, commanders say.

British commanders say some Iraqis are beginning to come forward with information about Saddam's key regional leaders.

"The locals are nervous," said Lt. Col Paul Ash, of the British Maritime Regiment in Umm Qasr. "But we're building trust."

British commanders said 30 years of oppression would be hard to overcome. But they are hopeful that an influx of humanitarian aid and basic security will break through the fear eventually.

Psychological efforts, such as destroying Saddam's statues, capturing high-profile Baath officials and occasionally "entering Basra with impunity," will serve to wear away Saddam's mystique, British commanders say. They also might target television and radio stations in Basra to silence the regime.

"Slowly but inexorably, the wedge between the people and the oppressors runs deeper," Vernon said.


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