For 13 days now, British artillery and U.S. helicopters have pounded Iraqi tanks, mortar positions and government targets inside Basra. The Baath Party headquarters has been hit twice. British commandos regularly raid the strategic port to abduct militia leaders -- all, British officials say, intended to pave the way for British troops to seize control of Iraq's second-largest city.
But to hear some Basra residents tell it, the punishing artillery barrages have had little effect in weakening the hold of President Saddam Hussein. At the Shatt al-Basra Bridge on the city's southern limits and along the highway linking Basra to the nearby town of Zubair, ask residents who is in charge of Basra today and the universal answer is: the same force that has held sway for the last three decades.
"The Baath Party and the army," said Ali, 39, who was on his way to the Zubair market to buy tomatoes to sell in Basra. "They are still very strong."
Ali, who once worked for the Korean carmaker Hyundai and speaks passable English, paused for a moment on the bridge while British soldiers at a checkpoint searched his truck for weapons. On condition that only his first name be used, he provided an account of a city where life functions almost normally, despite the standoff between British forces ringing the city and militiamen and soldiers holed up inside.
"The markets are functioning normally in Basra," he said. Dismissing reports that civilians in the predominantly Shiite Muslim city had tried to rebel against Hussein's government, he added, "There's been absolutely no uprising."
Ali's view was more or less echoed by other Basra residents, who are allowed to come and go with relative freedom over this single bridge left open by the British. The only restriction is that cars must pass through a British military checkpoint, where any vehicle deemed suspicious -- "dodgy," as the soldiers put it -- is singled out for a complete search.
"It's great. No problem," said a young man with a neatly trimmed beard and wearing a traditional loose-fitting black robe. Asked who was in charge in the city, he replied, "Baath Party. No army, just Baath."
Another man in brown, with a moustache and flecks of gray in his hair, said the main problems for Basra's 1.3 million residents are on-again, off-again electricity and a shortage of water, but not a reign of terror by Hussein loyalists, as described by British and U.S. officials.
"The people are living normally," said Falih, a teacher, speaking in English as he waited at the roadside with other passengers as their packed minibus was searched. "They go to the market, they go shopping, they go to the hospital when they are sick. Just there is this checkpoint here."
He added, "Life is normal."
The accounts of travelers moving back and forth from the besieged city seem to belie the depiction of Basra as gripped by fear, with a restive population under the sway of a ruthless militia that uses people as human shields. People here crossing to the town of Zubair, mostly on the way to markets, said they are free to come and go, and most intended to return to Basra after shopping.
"You see the same faces," said Sgt. Ian Pickford of the Irish Guards, who was posted at the bridge checkpoint from midnight until noon. "A lot of them come out with nothing, but go in with vegetables."
Among those he recognized was an old man riding on a rickety donkey cart who was a regular passer at the checkpoint.
The residents moving back and forth also seemed to counter some of the more dire predictions from aid groups that Basra faced a humanitarian crisis. Most said clean drinking water is a problem. But with markets open, and traffic flowing to Zubair, where the streets are now crowded with vendors, food appears to be less of a problem.
British commanders in the area said their information, from local residents, is that people in Basra should have enough food to last about one more month. A U.N. aid official contacted in Kuwait said the Iraqi government had been distributing extra food rations since summer in anticipation of a war and that the average family staying at home should have enough food to last until the end of April.
The residents did confirm what British commanders in the area have been saying since the siege began, that the army and militia fighters inside have interspersed with the civilian population, making it difficult for the British to pinpoint their positions. "The Baath Party people stand near the civilian homes," said the driver of a dark blue minibus, speaking through an interpreter. "And then the Americans and British fire on them."
With few foreigners having access to Basra, it is difficult to determine the accuracy of the British artillery and U.S. airstrikes or the extent of Iraqi casualties in the city. Ali, the vendor and former Hyundai worker, said, "Two or three died yesterday. Why are they killing our children? We are innocent. The children are scared."
The British believe the Iraqi fighters inside Basra are trying to draw them into a battle in the city's teeming streets, which could result in significant casualties. They fire at British positions with mortars, and they tempt counterattacks by moving tanks close to the edge of the city before quickly retreating up its main arteries.
On the bridge today, a brief moment of commotion erupted when British troops noticed a van moving from a factory building on the edge of town, from which several rocket-propelled grenades were fired Monday night. A Warrior armored vehicle unleashed a burst of machine-gun fire toward the vehicle, sending civilians on the bridge scampering for cover behind mounds of dirt, cars and an old concrete guard post once used by Iraqi sentries.
For now, British commanders said their strategy is to wait out the Iraqi defenders in Basra until conditions on the ground are right for a full-scale assault. As part of creating those conditions, British troops have launched operations in outlying villages dotted with date palms southeast of Basra. The British also said they want to scour the surrounding area for weapons caches and arms that could be used by army or militia fighters to attack British rear positions after any push into the city center.