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First to be liberated and first to loot

Umm Qasr, southern Iraq, April 9: Tariq Abdul cannot watch Baghdad fall from this first town of Iraq that the American and English army took 20 days ago en route to the Iraqi capital. He does not have a television set. It was looted.

In all of Iraq, he is one of the first of its people to be “liberated”. Umm Qasr, Iraq’s port town, is just across the border from Kuwait. As of yesterday, the Abrams tanks had still not rolled into Baghdad’s Firdaus Square — the Americans were on the west of the Tigris — but Tariq Abdul in Umm Qasr had no doubt that they would go across.

His dirty distasa hanging loosely from the shoulders to the feet, Tariq Abdul ambles up to the general hospital because another convoy of aid is being delivered. By the time he has left his two-room tenement in house 24, street 10, the hospital compound is already a mass of people.

The crowd is getting habituated, after three weeks of war and its aftermath, to the ceremony and the symbolism associated with “gifts from the people of Kuwait to the people of Iraq”. The youths know instinctively that when there is a posse of television cameramen, it is time to break out into a dance and shout “Down Saddam, down, down”.

Umm Qasr is easy to access, if allowed. It was easily accessed and by now more soldiers, more journalists, more aid and more foreign feet have been through its dry and dusty streets than in any other settlement in Iraq.

On the first day of the war, the British and the Americans announced the town had been occupied. On the second day, they said the port was being reopened. On the third day, fighting broke out. And on day four, Umm Qasr threatened to rob the coalition of the warring its insta-victory. The evidence so far is that Umm Qasr put up a stiffer resistance than did Baghdad. That show of rebellion has largely quietened. This morning, a shell landed on the outskirts.

For Tariq Abdul, slow to get to the hospital because of his 58 years, 30 years of living in Umm Qasr has wearied him down. He lives close to the general hospital, works — or worked — as an electrician in the port, married Salma, 54, fathered nine children. He has also been through three wars — from 1980 to 1988 with Iran, in 1991 and now, the first that claims to have “liberated” him.

“Only thieves and looters,” he is saying, not of the British soldiers but of the free-for-all in the war-ravaged town ever since the blackening of Saddam’s poster at the gates to Umm Qasr. “It was bad during the Iran war but Umm Qasr was not really hit. 1991 was worse and this is the worst. People are turning mad.”

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