Forces get first test of building new order
By Thanassis Cambanis, Globe Staff, 04/04/2003
UMM QASR, Iraq -- This southern Iraqi port is the first town where British and American forces are trying to build a new civil order to replace the Ba'ath regime, and already the task is proving daunting.
Initial efforts to distribute aid, work with local leaders, and keep a restive population calm have brought into sharp relief the problems the US-led coalition will likely face as it attempts to extend its control across the country.
No one here seems to have clear answers to basic questions about the New Iraqi Order. Who will be in charge? Who will run Iraq before Iraqis can run their country themselves? What is the military's role?
War planners have repeatedly invoked the military mantra that winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi population is essential. But with the tide of Arab public opinion against this war, and a frosty reception for the coalition from the Iraqi population in the Shia south that just 12 years ago rebelled against Saddam Hussein's rule, that campaign appears more challenging than ever.
"Our goal is to get postwar Iraq on its feet. That starts during the war," said Colonel David Bassert, stationed in Umm Qasr with the 354th Civil Affairs Brigade. "We don't want to stay any longer than we have to."
Confusion has been apparent this week as the bureaucratic alphabet soup slowly began mobilizing in this first stronghold of the invading coalition forces.
British and American civil affairs officers had a public disagreement over whether Umm Qasr's residents should be charged a delivery fee for drinking water. British troops have led efforts to move food, water, and medicine to southern Iraqi towns like Basra, Safwan, and Al Zubayr, which are in even more precarious straits than Umm Qasr.
"It's the classic problem of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing," said one American officer here.
As a case study, taking over Umm Qasr has provided a crash course for coalition forces. Civil Affairs units sent here nearly two weeks ago never expected their first crisis would be providing drinking water to the local population.
"It was a mission that came up suddenly," Bassert said.
British Civil Military Cooperation soldiers are calling the shots on basic matters like how to distribute the water and which local notables to trust. Throughout the town and port, American and British military engineers are involved in a host of projects, from improving water pipelines and power plants to building new roads.
The US Agency for International Development has sent its first permanent team to the decayed Al Ubor Customs Terminal Port Authority building, where it intends to set up regional headquarters and midwife long-term development and reconstruction projects.
US Civil Affairs teams, numbering in the dozens, have set up shop; they've even installed some black leatherette office furniture in one corner of the building.
Retired Lieutenant General Jay Garner, the man tapped by the Pentagon to run Iraq once the war is over until a more lasting civil administration is selected, paid his first quick visit to Umm Qasr on Tuesday.
The flurry of activity here suggests that the military and US government agencies involved in post-war Iraq are finally getting into gear. But so far, the United Nations and the handful of not-for-profits waiting in Kuwait have been absent both from the coalition's post-war planning and from the first moves on the ground here.
The UN agencies arrayed in Kuwait are still waiting for their own security teams to declare Iraq's south safe enough for aid work. And the nonprofit, nongovernmental organizations in the area say they are hamstrung not only by the continuing skirmishes, but by the fact that the coalition military has become the area's de facto ruler.
Unless the aid and reconstruction process is turned over to the United Nations, humanitarian groups will be reluctant to move into Iraq, said Cassandra Nelson, a spokeswoman for MercyCorps International in Kuwait.
"If we are in any way perceived as being aligned with the US military, the lives of our staff would be seriously jeopardized," she said. "For us security is paramount."
USAID sent its first disaster assistance response team specialists more than a week ago to speak with local leaders, doctors, and teachers.
On Monday, an advance team toured the town of Umm Qasr, driving in a loop from the port to the town's market square. A man rode alongside the USAID convoy on a bicycle, gesturing "get out" with his right hand. Other men along the road turned their thumbs down.
The fact that loyalists to the Ba'athist regime are sprinkled throughout the government-controlled food distribution network and local government has made life more difficult for the coalition military officials now choosing prominent residents to serve on a new "town council."
Despite the problems, Bassert and other officers here stressed that Umm Qasr -- a Shia stronghold far from Hussein's Sunni powerbase around Baghdad -- is also a comparatively easy place to start. And success here could help ease tensions elsewhere.
"As we leave the Shia part of the country and go toward Baghdad, and the places that are more Saddam Hussein's home turf, populations will be less inclined to be friendly," Bassert said. "If we can show here that our intent is honorable, we will go a long way toward ensuring a friendly -- or at least a neutral -- reception in places that were Hussein's strongholds."
Thanassis Cambanis can be reached at email@example.com.