Iraqi Town Takes First Steps to Self0rule
May. 17, 2003
UMM QASR, Iraq (AP) _ Dozens of Iraqis line up outside City Hall demanding results, and demanding them now. A man wants running water. A woman complains people are tapping into her power line. Another man asks for medicine.
Councilman Najim Abd Mahdi says he would like to help them. But he has bigger issues to resolve: restoring basic services in a looted city and getting elections organized in a couple of weeks.
``It will take time,'' he said. ``People need to understand that we cannot undo 35 years of Saddam overnight.''
The first town in postwar Iraq to be turned over from coalition military control to Iraqi civilian rule, Umm Qasr's transition highlights the obstacles in store as Iraqis begin to rebuild lives and restore their country after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
The new provisional city council, endorsed by the British military, is struggling to restore the nuts and bolts of life, build a municipal government, root out Baath Party loyalists _ and, most intimidating, deal with the huge expectations of citizens newly free to make demands.
Umm Qasr, a small, sand-blown town of 50,000 barely across the border from Kuwait, was one of the first places taken by coalition troops who wanted to secure Iraq's only deep-water port. The port is the chief entry point for trade and relief aid into southern Iraq.
After more than a month in charge, British forces formally handed control of the southern port town to a 12-member town council in a ceremony Thursday. The withdrawal of British troops so soon after the war's end is something Mahdi sees as significant.
``They have said all along that coalition forces came to liberate us, not occupy us,'' he said. ``Their departure means that they intend to honor that.''
Around town, the presence of military vehicles and troops has dropped significantly from a month ago. British forces still control the port, but all other civil administrative duties have reverted to the town council.
The volunteer council, made up of professionals and religious leaders, is responsible for everything from schools and hospitals to the police force. Council elections will be held in the next couple of weeks so people can choose their government.
Council members, who have been working with British troops from the start, have begun to feel the weight of their civic duties as dozens of citizens line up outside their door every day with lists of demands.
Over the past month, the town regained its electricity, water and other basic services with the help of British engineers. But the continued looting of a worn-down, often neglected infrastructure has taken its toll.
People have begun to tap into neighbors' water pipes and power lines. Looters are still making off with electricity cables, which they sell as scrap metal.
But the newly installed 40-man police force, trained by the British military, is already on the streets.
``They're learning from us. When we first started doing night patrols, people here were very surprised,'' said Sgt. Colin Preece.
Umm Qasr was the first place in Iraq to be declared safe for humanitarian activities, so aid groups have flooded the town with assistance.
``They don't see a uniform and a rifle. They see people trying to help them. We don't want thanks. When we see the kids' faces, that's enough,'' said Sgt. Edward Arnold.
Dozens of men and women cradling babies swarmed the entrance to a field clinic set up by a South Korean aid group on Friday. Health services are severely strained at the town's small hospital and clinic.
``My daughter has been sick for weeks, but the hospital was too crowded. Thank God I can come here,'' said Zeidan Majeed, 32, holding a prescription for his 5-month-old baby.
Despite the growing pains that come with being a town in transition, Umm Qasr's newfound freedom to rule itself is worth the price to council member Najim Ouda Manshad, 54.
``It's much better being like this,'' he said. ``We've come a long way from being under Saddam's thumb.''