Umm Qasr, March 25 (Reuters): Cupping his hand to his mouth, 27-year-old Farazdag tried to explain to an American soldier that he needed water.
Behind him, a crowd gathered, making the same gesture to anyone in uniform, even towards the US and British military vehicles speeding by.
The southern Iraqi port city of Umm Qasr, on the Kuwaiti border, is now under the control of the invading forces, but it has been left without water supplies or electricity. Residents say stocks of food are running low and the market is empty.
“We welcome these people,” said Farazdag, eyeing the US soldier nervously. “We want to tell them we don’t want guns, we don’t want bombs, we don’t want war. We come in peace. The people here want food and water.”
A joint force of US and British military engineers today toured Umm Qasr’s water treatment plant and power station, both out of action since the invasion began last week.
Local residents say the water plant was damaged during the thunderous ground assault. Not true, say US forces. They say water feeding the plant comes from further north near the city of Basra, and the taps have been closed on the orders of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
“Saddam turned it off,” said Major John Taylor, part of a team from the British Royal Engineers, specialising in civil infrastructure.
“The water plant has no military damage at all. Not a single bullet hole. The minute Umm Qasr was invaded the guys in Basra cut the supplies.”
The US and British forces say they will get water and electricity supplies running as soon as they can, but are reluctant to say when.
In the late afternoon, a British army vehicle patrolled the streets of the city, announcing through a loudhailer in Arabic that help was on the way. “We are British soldiers. We are going to bring you food and water. We are going to return Umm Qasr to normal.”
The residents of Umm Qasr, a dusty town of flat-roofed, adobe houses, say the situation is desperate.
“We have children, babies, we are all so thirsty,” said Salman, a port worker. “Already we are suffering. And we don’t know what will happen tomorrow, the day after tomorrow.”
The battle for Iraq’s only deep sea port was expected to be quick and decisive, an easy victory for the invaders as they swept north to oust Saddam.
But it took troops under the British command more than three days to fully subdue resistance from loyal members of Saddam’s Baath Party.