| Iraqi women and children wave as they see soldiers from Britain’s 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, enter their village north of Basra. (Reuters)
Basra, April 8 (Reuters): British officials said a local “sheikh” would form the leadership in Basra province, as residents no longer under the yoke of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s loyalists complained of lawlessness and want.
People and cars flooded Basra’s streets today, a day after the British forces entered the heart of Iraq’s second city and wrested control from Baath Party loyalists and militiamen.
The mood on the street around the troops was one of excitement. In the city’s main square, a portrait of Saddam that loomed large had been taken down.
But angry residents away from the soldiers said they were caught in a political vacuum and complained of lack of water and a total breakdown in law and order.
“We are caught between two enemies, Saddam and the British,” said Osama Ijam, a 24-year-old medical student in the grounds of the rundown Basra General Hospital.
“Is this what they call a liberation' We want our own government. We want our own security and our own law.”
The hospital, like many government buildings, stores and offices has been looted in recent days.
Residents said the thieves were from the impoverished shanty towns on the edge of the city, which were the main hideouts of fidayeen militia who had held out against the British forces for the first 19 days of the war.
“When I see my college looted and destroyed in front of my eyes I wonder why they (the British troops) allow this to happen,” said Ijam. “Are they here to help us or just to help themselves'”
Army spokesman Colonel Chris Vernon said Britain wanted to hand authority to whatever remained of the police once the troops stabilised the security situation in and around Basra city.
“This is not a former Yugoslavia. This is not an Afghanistan. Basically what we see in Basra province is a broadly functioning civil infrastructure,” he said.
He told a news briefing in Kuwait that the British army had appointed a tribal chief, determined to be “worthwhile, credible” and with authority, to provide civilian leadership of Iraq’s southern Basra province.
“We have been approached by a local tribal leader, a sheikh, I’m not going to name him at this stage, and local divisional commanders met him last night,” Vernon said.
“He will form, at present, the leadership within the Basra province and we have asked him to form a committee from the local community that is representative of the local community.”
British paratroopers who walked into Basra yesterday have left, but a dozen tanks took up position at major intersections today and soldiers began distributing water at four points.
“All we’re doing today is providing a presence to allow people to feel confident to come out onto the street and do what they want to do,” said Captain Giles Malec.
Captain Niall Brennan of the Irish Guard said water and power supplies to Basra were cut off by the Iraqi government.
He said electricity was now restored to most of the city and water treatment plants were also repaired. But he said damaged and polluted water distribution canals needed to be mended and he did not know how long that would take.
Local residents, wearied by nearly three weeks of war, demanded action.
Basra General Hospital, like the rest of the city, has no water supply and doctors say medical supplies are running low.
In a humid ward with blood stains on the floor, several civilian victims of US and British strikes on the city lay listlessly in their beds.
Nine-year-old Zainab Hamid, who lost her right leg in an aerial bombing in the east of the city on the third day of the war stared blankly at the ceiling.
“All of her family is dead. Mother, father, sisters, brothers,” said her aunt who did not want to give her name. “I am looking after her now.”
Outside Basra General Hospital a woman shouted: “Where is their aid' Where is their money' All we have is dirty water.”
It is not clear how many civilians died in the fight for Basra, which was encircled by the British troops for more than two weeks before they moved in unopposed yesterday. One doctor said hundreds had been killed. Others said dozens.
The mainly Shiite south of Iraq had little affection for Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-dominated administration. But the British forces may have to battle hard to build trust among the population, which holds bitter memories of their 1991 uprising that was brutally crushed by Saddam’s forces when US troops pulled out.