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Blind & bogged down in Basra

Kuwait, March 24: The coalition forces have moved on in the direction of Baghdad but a measure of what really is happening in the Battle for Basra five days into the war can be gleaned from piecing together the International Committee of the Red Cross’ effort to get aid into the southern Iraqi city and the circumstances surrounding the death of a journalist from the Independent Television Network.

In peace time, Basra, north of here, can be reached after a four-hour drive, one-and-a-half hours of which would be in Kuwaiti territory.

The Red Cross applied for security clearance to reach aid to Umm Qasr and southern Iraq just as hostilities were breaking out. The coalition forces themselves have promised to take aid first. “At first, the military will flow in humanitarian aid and equipment to be followed by non-government agencies,” the coalition command had made it clear.

But Tamara Al-Rifai of the Red Cross said there is no word on when the international agency can get in. “We will not go in as part of a military effort,” Al-Rifai told The Telegraph. “We will go in independently. At first our staff will move in and then we will send drinking water.”

Al-Rifai said the Red Cross has a partial presence in Basra. “Our Iraqi staff are in Basra. We never withdrew from there. But we have still not got security clearance. I have no idea how long it will take. We are still waiting.”

Last afternoon, a ship carrying aid as a gift from Kuwait “to the people of Iraq” did not sail. The voyage was called off half-an-hour before the scheduled departure.

British Army spokesman Lt Col Chris Vernon had said the coalition was not looking at Basra as a military target and did not seek armed engagement. But it is now clear that elements of the Iraqi Army’s 51 Division have withdrawn into Basra and are putting up a resistance.

The coalition forces were making efforts by contacting Iraqi army commanders — one brigade commander was said to have surrendered — and negotiating with other contacts to get into the city. Basra has been a centre of a Shi’ite rebellion against Saddam Hussein but the rebels have not yet overtly joined forces with the coalition.

The circumstances leading to the killing of ITN’s Terry Lloyd show that the Battle for Basra rages on. It is equally true that the coalition has not gone into Basra with full military might for fear of “collateral damage” or civilian casualties.

Lloyd was killed near Basra on Sunday. His team members, Fred Nerac and Hussain Osman are still missing. A fourth team member, Daniel Demoustier, was injured in firing but was able to get back into US and British lines. Evidence suggests that Lloyd’s body is in Basra Hospital, which is still under Iraqi control.

Like many western networks, ITN (headquartered in London) has deployed a great number of journalists to cover the war. Lloyd was, what in Pentagonese is called, a “unilateral”, as opposed to “embedded”.

ITN’s coordinator in Kuwait Tim Singleton said he has put together an account of what happened to the crew.

The ITN team in two vehicles was covering the US and British advance on Basra. The team passed through a number of checkpoints and was told that it was moving forward at its own risk. On the road to Basra, the ITN crew saw Iraqi soldiers on foot and turned back. Two Iraqi vehicles followed them.

Singleton said Demoustier described how the second vehicle came alongside his own. He looked across and an Iraqi officer gave him a ‘thumbs up’ and pointed to the road ahead as if indicating that he was also driving away from Basra. Daniel thought this was an indication that the Iraqis were wanting to surrender. Singleton says the other interpretation is that the Iraqis were using the network’s cars as cover.

Just about then the vehicle that Demoustier was driving with Lloyd as his front-seat passenger was hit by automatic gunfire. “ITN believes this fire came from the coalition forces. There is independent evidence that it was American troops who fired,” Singleton said.

ITN goes on to give a likely explanation of what happened: “Coalition forces had seen a number of Iraqi ‘irregulars’ operating in the area. When they saw four vehicles going in the same direction and that one of them contained armed Iraqi soldiers, they took the group to be one of irregulars. We assume that is why they opened fire.”

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