Seeking to break the government's grip in southern Iraq, British troops raided villages surrounding Basra early today and apprehended 14 people considered to be key Baath Party and militia leaders who had been intimidating residents and forcing them to remain loyal to President Saddam Hussein.
Since British troops arrived in this area two weeks ago, lingering fear of government and Baath Party retribution has been a significant factor in the resistance mounted by army regulars and militia members. Not only has it encouraged the city of 1.3 million to stick with the Baath authorities, it has helped block the popular welcome U.S. and British forces had expected in outlying areas and stymied efforts to restore basic services and allow residents to resume something of a normal life.
Capt. Nader Anabtawi, commander of the Milan platoon of the First Fusiliers, said the arrests this morning "were designed to send a very, very clear message," which was, he said, that the British forces on the ground "will be here for some time."
"We're confident we got the right people," Anabtawi said. "There are one or two others still causing a bit of harassment and still trying to impose their wants on the local population."
The 14 suspects, seen being transported in the back of British military trucks with canvas hoods over their heads, were being interrogated, Anabtawi said. All 14 had been pointed out by local Iraqis, he said.
This corner of southeastern Iraq -- from the Kuwaiti border up to Basra, Iraq's second-largest city -- has experienced some return to normal life since the war began March 20, and U.S. Marines, then British troops, occupied the area.
Markets have reopened in towns, including the port of Umm Qasr on the Persian Gulf and the crossroads at Zubair 10 miles south of Basra. More traffic plies the roads and highways. Farmers pick tomatoes in the fields. The sight of British soldiers manning checkpoints no longer attracts the curious stares of children.
But there is still a pervasive climate of fear, residents and British soldiers stationed here say. Residents see that in towns and villages around Basra, the Baath Party officials who held sway for decades are no longer in power. But they are still here. They listen at the edges of crowds. They watch. And, residents fear, they are waiting.
Waiting for the British troops to leave. Waiting for the one day when they will be able to return to power, and to punish those whom they consider collaborators with the foreign invaders.
The fear is compounded by the continued control of the Baath Party and the Saddam's Fedayeen militia in the region's largest and most important city, and because Hussein, despite U.S. battlefield advances, remains in power in Baghdad.
A village physician, for instance, recently leaned into a car window and spoke in an urgent, hushed tone to a passing reporter, his eyes pleading. "Please, forget about me," he whispered as a crowd pressed in, trying to listen. "Don't ever come here asking for me again. I am asking you, please."
On a bridge over the Shatt al Basra waterway leading into the city, a well-dressed English teacher asked to use a reporter's satellite telephone to call a relative abroad. He wanted to sit in the back seat of the car, because the windows were tinted. He would not sit in the front, where he would be visible to Iraqis gathered nearby. Then he hurried away.
"Another time," he said. "I must go. They might consider me as a spy."
In the village of Mushirij, about five miles southwest of Basra, Aziz Hamdani, 25, said, "Everyone is afraid. Of the militia. . . . They have eyes. They film everywhere. And they send the film to the authorities in Baghdad."
Asked how many militia members and Baath Party leaders are still around, his voice fell to a whisper. "Many," Hamdani said. "They are very dangerous. They are followers of the president here." he said. "If he goes, they all will disappear."
British military officers say overcoming that fear -- infused over generations -- is among their greatest challenges.
"These people for 20 years have lived under a brainwashing-type regime," said Maj. Aidan Stephen, a civil affairs officer with the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. "It's almost engrained in their psyche that if they do something against this regime, they will be punished."
When soldiers from a British engineering detachment arrived in Mushirij to take over and begin operating the local water purifying facility, they discovered there was nothing wrong with the pumps or pipes or the new equipment imported from Turkey. The only problem -- the one that kept purified water from flowing to thirsty people in this arid region -- was that the plant's 18 workers, whose headquarters office is in Basra, had been ordered to switch off the machinery.
Delaney and the other engineers said that once they arrived, the workers returned to the facility and immediately started the water flowing. But now, he said, the 18, who have yet to be paid and who are housed on the facility's grounds, live with uncertainty. "They've gone against the regime by reopening the water supply again," Delaney said.
At the water facility in Mushirij, people wait in line under the scorching sun with plastic buckets, tin cans, bottles, an old bathtub brought in the back of a truck -- anything that can hold water. Women, dressed in black, wait patiently on one side, men on the other in a separate line.
When a camera appears, young men tell journalists in hurried voices, "No photo, no photo!" The reason, they explain, is that Baath officials are around, watching, and village residents do not want to be documented taking anything -- even water -- from a plant protected by British troops.
Aziz Hamdani, waiting in line for water, explained how fear of retribution has prevented residents in this predominantly Shiite Muslim part of Iraq from staging another rebellion against the government, similar to what happened in 1991 following the Persian Gulf War. Then, the popular revolt, initially encouraged by the United States, failed to gain international backing and Hussein's loyalists killed thousands in reprisals.
"We are afraid," he said. In 1991, "they repressed us, and attacked us. A big attack." But this time he is feeling more confident that change is near. "We are sure the United States and Britain will build a new society in Iraq," he said.
But a few yards away, the English teacher was not convinced. He described how he once was accused of opposing the government and how his wife was taken prisoner, detained to try to make him confess. Asked where Baath officials were at that moment, he scanned the crowd of Iraqis nearby: "Here," he said. "There. Everywhere."