| Children welcome members of the British 2nd Royal Tank Regiment as they arrive in Basra on Saturday. (AP/PTI)
South of Basra, March 23 (Reuters): As the convoy of British tanks and trucks rolled by, the Iraqi boys on the side of the road were all smiles and waves.
But once it had passed, leaving a trail of dust and grit in its wake, their smiles turned to scowls. “We don’t want them here,” tutted 17-year-old Fouad, looking angrily up at the plumes of grey smoke rising from the embattled southern city of Basra, under attack from US and British forces for more than two days.
He pulled a piece of paper from the waistband of his trousers. Unfolding it, he held up a picture of Saddam Hussein.
“Saddam is our leader. Saddam is good,” he said defiantly, looking again at the well-worn picture showing the Iraqi leader with a benign smile, sitting on a majestic throne.
British and US ground troops invaded southern Iraq under cover of darkness on Thursday, pushing ahead to the outskirts of Basra on the banks of the Tigris.
The city was the focus of an uprising following the 1991 Gulf War, brutally extinguished by Saddam. But if the invading forces were expecting an easy ride in the southern Shi’ite heartland, they may now be thinking again.
Pockets of resistance have sprung up in areas supposedly under US or British control, notably the port town of Umm Qasr, still not secured nearly three days after the invasion.
At an abandoned Iraqi military complex, 25 km south of Basra, relaxed British soldiers were on patrol this morning. “It was an Iraqi training camp. We’ve cleared all the buildings, looked for booby traps, it’s secured,” said a young corporal.
But by early afternoon, after two Iraqi soldiers were spotted on waste ground nearby, three tanks sped back from the Basra frontline. Soldiers ran to take up positions, their guns trained in every direction.
In the desert scrub on either side of the main Basra road, US Super Cobra helicopters have been deployed to swoop on pockets of resistance in territory ground troops raced through early on Friday.
Residents fleeing Basra said the Iraqi military had taken the battle into the city. “There is fighting in the centre, on the streets. It is terrible,” said Hussein, a 24-year-old engineer who works for the state-run Southern Oil Company.
Hussein said he escaped from the city yesterday with his wife and young son. More civilians streamed out of Basra today, in trucks and battered cars crammed full with household belongings. The sound of machinegun and artillery fire echoed behind them. “We don’t want Americans here. This is Iraq,” said Hussein.