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British in Iraq's Umm Qasr port urge Iraqis to help themselves

UMM QASR, Iraq—A local government is taking shape in this shattered port city—the first new government in free Iraq.

But those first steps are small and tottering. How the United States and its coalition partners nurture the Iraqi Committee for Umm Qasr could be a test case for installing self-government in the rest of the country.

While the coalition members want to help Iraqi citizens get back on their feet, they also have to allow townspeople to solve their own problems, a new concept in a society under totalitarian rule for 35 years.

"We have to tell them, `figure it out,' " said Jeff Jurgensen, spokesman for the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, which was established by the U.S. to administer post-war Iraq. "This is Democracy 101. It's a learning process."

The committee, informally known as the "town council," is made up of volunteers approved by the British military occupying the town and providing security for the port. The 10 members are teachers, religious leaders and other "men of respect" in the town.

All were opposed to the former Iraqi regime—two were held prisoner by Saddam's loyalists in the past. Several helped the British identify Baath Party members as the town was being captured, which helped earn the confidence of the British.

"They stuck their necks out before the fighting was over," Jurgensen said.

The town council has been meeting for about a week. And on Tuesday, members held their first press conference on the steps of the wrecked Umm Qasr Hotel, which is serving as City Hall.

"We have no problems," Council Chairman Najeem Abdulmahdi said as he stood in the center of a town without running water, sewer service, garbage pickup or jobs. "The problem we faced is finished. The problem was Saddam."

But challenges abound.

Jobs, water and infrastructure are the priorities.

Only 17 dockworkers have been hired by the controlling British military to work in the country's only functioning port. And a few more locals are working in military kitchens.

So hundreds of men mill the streets, idle. Many line up at the main port gate, hoping more workers will be hired.

Osama Kadem Al Timimi is fortunate. He's a supervisor for the dockworkers. He makes $3 a day, about one-third what he made at the port before the war.

He said many men are desperate to support their families, even at a lower wage. "All the people want to come back to work because we need money," he said.


For the town council, education also is a priority. In the short run, getting children back into school is a way to keep them from the begging on the streets. In the long run, education will overcome the specter of the former regime.

But opening schools has been problematic. The buildings have suffered from years of neglect. And looters have wrecked whatever was left.

"We are asking all of our teachers to collect at the schools, but few people are coming to school. They are afraid," said Abdulmahdi, the council chairman.

The headmistress of That Al-Sawawy, a secondary school for girls, said that beginning a new curriculum free of Baath Party influence is difficult. All of their books espouse the regime's ideology and glorify Saddam.

"His picture was in every book, in every classroom, in every street," said a teacher, who would only give her first name, Bushra.

Abdulmahdi was an English teacher in his former life. He vowed the schools would be free of religion and politics. He said they are essential for cultivating a new Iraq.

"We need schools for life," he said. "We have mosques for religion. And we want no ideology. That was the Baath Party, which was (filled with) killers and thieves."

Abdulmahdi said the United States and Britain are obligated to rebuild schools as well as provide security, build homes and clean the streets.

"You destroyed in 20 days this regime that took 35 years to build. Now you have the means to help us rebuild," he said. "And you must give us opportunity for jobs."

But a U.S. official said privately that the Iraqis' expectations are too high.

Under the regime, the people became dependent on handouts and accustomed to poverty. Now they must learn to live on their own and govern themselves.

"They have nothing. They know it will get better in the next few weeks, but how are they going to survive the next few weeks? They have to learn quickly how to help themselves," the official said.

For Abdulmahdi and other members of the town council, the challenge is just getting the streets clean and repairing the local ice machine, an essential bit of machinery in a town without many refrigerators.

He said he is confident the people of Umm Qasr can overcome the difficulties, but don't have the resources. Those must come from the coalition.

"We will solve our problems," he said. "We are educated. We are Iraqis. We will use our minds. But we need your help."


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

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