Published on Tuesday, March 25, 2003 by the Globe & Mail/Canada
UN Fears Humanitarian Disaster in Basra
by Jeff Sallot
Basra, an industrial city of 1.2 million, "may be facing a humanitarian disaster. A city that size cannot afford to go without water for long," United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday as British troops withdrew from approaches to the city under unexpectedly heavy fire.
The main water-treatment plant on the northern fringe of the city was knocked out when electric power was cut on Friday, leaving 60 per cent of Basra's population without any water, the International Committee for the Red Cross reported.
An emergency supply of salty water is reaching about 40 per cent of the residents, the Red Cross said.
With hot, humid weather in the forecast, the aid agency fears the breakdown of the sanitation system will soon cause an outbreak of gastrointestinal diseases.
More than 100,000 small children are at risk of disease, the United Nations Children's Fund said.
But an even greater risk is that people will start to flee the city in the midst of the fighting, setting off a wave of war refugees that could roll east into neighbouring Iran.
"If people have electricity and water they will stay hunkered down. But they will start to move to look for water," said Susan Johnson, the director of international programs for the Canadian Red Cross in Ottawa.
Red Cross representatives were trying last night to reach the main pumping station, but travel was difficult because of fighting.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said British troops had captured the international airport at Basra.
"Basra is surrounded and cannot be used as an Iraqi base," Mr. Blair told the Westminster Parliament. "But in Basra, there are pockets of Saddam's most fiercely loyal security services who are holding out."
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, in an appearance on Iraqi state television, said: "I tell you, dear people in Basra, to be patient. God's victory is coming."
U.S. General Tommy Franks, the coalition commander, said mines need to be cleared downriver from Basra before large shipments of humanitarian aid can begin to reach the city.
Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, is situated near the Iranian and Kuwaiti borders and just downstream from the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It was to be a major distribution hub for humanitarian aid.
U.S. and British military commanders had expected the city to fall quickly and to see their troops welcomed by repressed Shiite Muslims.
But the resistance put up by forces loyal to the Baghdad regime was stiffer than expected.
British officers said Iraqi militia and irregulars in civilian clothing pretended to surrender, then attacked using women and children as decoys.
Britain's Seventh Armoured Brigade, the fabled Desert Rats, had penetrated parts of Basra on the weekend, but withdrew under fire yesterday.
"We were expecting a lot of hands up from Iraqi soldiers and for the humanitarian operations in Basra to begin fairly quickly behind us," British Army Captain Patrick Trueman said.
"But it hasn't quite worked out that way. There are significant elements in Basra who are hugely loyal to the regime."
British units came under intense mortar fire as they tried to consolidate their positions along main approaches to the north and the south of Basra. One British soldier was killed.
Western reporters on the outskirts of Basra said Iraqi forces had positioned their artillery and mortars in residential areas. British soldiers are under orders to hold their fire near civilians unless they have a clear shot at a military target.
The Iraqi army was also using Soviet-era tanks to fire on the British.
Al-Jazeera television reported a heavy bomb explosion near a bridge west of the city.
Basra, a major oil refining centre, is also a port along a waterway that leads to Baghdad. Founded in 636 by one of the early Islamic caliphs as a military outpost, Basra has suffered from warfare several times in its history. More than 25,000 were killed in a single two-day battle during the Iraq-Iran war in 1984.
© 2003 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc.