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OMINOUS SIGNS AS 'COALITION' FACES 'UNEXPECTED' RESISTANCE

Remarkably, the same rag that was supporting the coup attempt on Chavez is publishing this story... It seems that the "surrender" reported by the media is a bunk story too. The references are also great about US marines looking more like occupiers than liberators is a great and that Iraqis don't appear to be overjoyed about US occupation is especially poignant. Looks like it is getting harder and harder to suppress the voices in mainstream media although the live shows try hard
Published on Sunday, March 23, 2003 by the Financial Times/UK
Ominous Signs for Coalition in Battle for Umm Qasr
by Victor Mallet on the Kuwait-Iraq border


US and British marines, backed by tanks and air strikes, fought for the third day on Sunday to secure full control of the Iraqi frontier town of Umm Qasr, in a small but politically significant battle that has become an embarrassment for the invasion force.

Umm Qasr, the port at the head of the Gulf through which the coalition has announced it will bring urgent humanitarian aid to the people of Iraq, is home to just 4,000 people and lies within sight of the Kuwaiti border.

The sound of machine gun exchanges and bombing raids by Royal Air Force Harriers was clearly audible on Sunday from Kuwaiti territory, in spite of repeated official assurances in recent days that control of the port had been or was about to be secured.

In an ominous sign of the military and ultimately political - difficulties that may lie ahead for the invasion force if it seeks to capture urban areas, the word "guerrilla" was used at the weekend by Colonel Chris Vernon, chief UK military spokesman in Kuwait, to explain the unexpectedly stiff resistance encountered in Umm Qasr.

"There's a bit of a fight in Umm Qasr," he said on Saturday, predicting that the area would finally be cleared of Iraqi resistance by Saturday night. "I wouldn't call it serious military resistance, but you've got groups of determined men with rifles and RPG-7s [rocket propelled grenades]."

By Sunday, however, the fighting had intensified, and coalition commanders were suggesting that a group of 120 Iraqi soldiers still fighting against overwhelming odds were either Republican Guards or special forces men sent by President Saddam Hussein's regime to bolster Umm Qasr's defense. Some were said to be firing from the windows of civilian houses and switching from military to civilian clothes.

The failure to bring calm to Umm Qasr is particularly galling because the US-led coalition wants to bring in humanitarian aid through the port as quickly as possible to demonstrate its good intentions to the Iraqis and to world opinion, which remains overwhelmingly hostile to the war.

"Umm Qasr and the port is absolutely vital to us and we're going to have to go in and seize it," said Lt-Col Ben Currie of the British Royal Marines in Umm Qasr on Sunday. "We're going through and clearing it street by street, and house by house."

The Iraqi regime of President Saddam Hussein was quick to capitalize on the fighting, some of it televised live by crews flown into Umm Qasr by the British. "The heroic Iraqi fighters in Umm Qasr will throw the infidel British and American mercenaries to certain death," said Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, information minister in Baghdad.

Militarily, the outcome of the battle is not in doubt, since the coalition has complete air superiority and an overwhelming advantage in firepower. But events in southern Iraq since Friday when US marines briefly raised the Stars and Stripes over Umm Qasr before realizing the gesture made them look more like occupiers than liberators suggest the war will be much more complicated than President George W. Bush had hoped.

One problem for the Americans is that however much the Iraqis hate Saddam Hussein, they do not appear to be overjoyed in the Shia Muslim south, at least about the prospect of a US occupation.

Reporters traveling independently in southern Iraq say some residents of Safwan, another town on the Kuwaiti border, were openly hostile to the coalition forces, although others said they were happy that President Bush was seeking to end the rule of President Hussein.

The street-fighting in Umm Qasr, meanwhile, underlines why armies, particularly those wary of taking casualties or of killing civilians by accident, are reluctant to take on defenders in densely populated towns and cities.

Coalition commanders insist they are trying to avoid civilian casualties and preserve as much of Iraq's civil infrastructure as possible, but officers would rather flush out snipers with tanks and aircraft than risk their troops on the ground.

"It makes sense for us to do this," said one US commander quoted by Reuters in Umm Qasr yesterday after Harriers dropped two 500lb bombs on a building used by Iraqi resisters. "Rather than send men in there, we're just going to destroy it." By Sunday, one US marine was reported killed in Umm Qasr, while at least seven Iraqis and possibly dozens more have died.

So while US forces raced towards Baghdad, they did not appear to have taken any major cities. Basra, the country's second city in the south, is supposed to become an example of how the British and Americans can start to rebuild Iraq with the help of a grateful population, but for the time being it has been sealed off and bypassed. "Basra is not in itself an immediate military objective," said Col Vernon.

Umm Qasr, the coalition says, was only tackled because of the need to import food and other humanitarian aid.

But even this small, decrepit town a few kilometers from the border is proving a challenge. "At times it's been so frightening it just doesn't feel real," said Sergeant Dennis Flores, a 22-year-old engineer involved in the fighting. "Judging from what we've seen here, there might be a lot more work before this job's done."

Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2003

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