U.S. Water News Online
UMM QASR, Iraq -- The best way to win hearts across the
Iraqi countryside today is with water.
Small children beg for it at roadsides. Farmers in search of it
drive listing jalopies for miles. Women clad head to toe in black
brave the noon sun lugging empty plastic containers. Such is the
collective thirst here that Sabah, 45, and his 12-year-old son, Ali,
dared to venture into an abandoned Iraqi army compound where elite
soldiers recently guarded the country's main port here at the top of
the Persian Gulf.
In the compound, beyond coils of barbed wire, Sabah and Ali
rummaged through discarded gas masks, unexploded artillery shells
sticking up from a slimy green pond, empty bunkers, a black beret in
the sand, and abandoned pet rabbits. Then Sabah spotted a tap
dripping beneath a tank marked ``Down U.S.A.'' Ali immediately began
filling their five containers.
Less than the length of a soccer field away, U.S. and British
soldiers camped. They have occupied the port and set up strict
security gates out front.
Children here seem excited by the arrival of U.S. forces, and some
adults tentatively say they support war to remove Saddam Hussein --
even hiring on to deliver U.S.-supplied water to fellow Iraqis. But
other men flashed thumbs down at U.S. soldiers.
U.S. Army commanders -- eying their dinner as Sabah eyed his water
-- say th ey are well aware of the anti-American sentiment and also
that thousands of Iraqi families in the area need water desperately.
Hussein used to provide water -- part of his system of controlling
Iraqis -- and now that his forces are losing control, somebody has to
By day, the troops here are trying to step in as soon as possible.
This is America's most secure beachhead inside Iraq, and a core part
of the mission is winning over hostile Iraqis -- crucial for the Bush
administration's strategy of ensuring a stable and, eventually,
democratic Iraq. Commanders have ramped up humanitarian efforts,
enlisting a cadre of Iraqi truck drivers who know the area to pick up
water from a new pipeline from Kuwait and deliver it to the
Whatever happens here in this relatively sympathetic Shiite Muslim
part of Iraq will become an example for Iraqis elsewhere -- many of
them Sunni Muslims more loyal to Hussein, said Col. Dave Bassert,
sitting in the port administration building -- now a makeshift
``We have to show, by what we do here, what our real intent is,''
Bassert said. ``Our goal is to get the military out and the civilian
agencies in, and then get the civilian agencies out and the Iraqis
But just delivering water, let alone bringing civilian aid
agencies in, is happening much more slowly than commanders want.
``Anything that happens here,'' Bassert lamented, ``is like elephants
mating. It takes a lot of time and coordination.''
Commanders here point out that Congress has not funded the
military to do long-term humanitarian work. ``We would love to have
(civilian aid professionals) any time. Certainly we are at a stage
now where we can use their assistance. It's time to start
rebuilding,'' Bassert said.
A two-member team from the U.S. Agency for International
Development, Sally Hodgson and Don Finn, finally came in by convoy
after several delays. Security assessments had been made, and they
will set up an office this week. ``We have to get the humanitarian
aid flowing,'' Hodgson said, ``because people will suffer if we
For now, water delivery depends on the U.S. Army. That challenge
is taking troops deeper and deeper into Iraqi affairs. They have
discovered the depths of Hussein's totalitarian system.
Hussein-sponsored networks supervised delivery of water and food.
Villages counted on water trucks arriving each week. And Iraqis all
carried cards assigning them to one local shop where they collected
American soldiers say they are breaking down that system by
chasing Hussein's loyalists from the area. They conduct nightly
patrols. ``There are still Baathists (members of Hussein's ruling
Baath Party) in the town,'' Bassert said.
Col. Dave Blackledge, chief of the civil affairs operations here,
drove around Umm Qasr to monitor conditions.
``Obviously, there are some that don't want us here,'' Blackledge
said. ``This was the first time we've seen people doing the thumbs
down.'' He tried to put a positive spin on it. ``It may be a sign
that they feel more c omfortable expressing how they feel.''
His men who are able to talk with Iraqis are finding that many
want change but remain very afraid of retaliation by Hussein's forces
if America does not prevail. Bassert said Iraqis often ask: ``'Are
you planning to stay? Will you be around to protect us?``' To work
with Iraqis, U.S. troops draw on a team of Iraqi-American soldiers,
who translate to get the water-delivery trucking system up and
Drivers are to be paid more than five times their prewar wages,
around $5 a day. Many men are eager for the work. Those hired are
told they must follow coalition rules against charging townspeople
money for the water they bring. But until the deliveries begin, the
villagers search. Men pedal bicycles loaded with empty containers.
Boys clutch empty bottles. Girls implore with empty looks in their
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