Brits restore power at key Iraqi port

Wednesday, April 2, 2003

UMM QASR, Iraq -- British military engineers restored power to Iraq's major seaport for the first time in weeks, a major step in reopening the harbor and funneling desperately needed humanitarian aid deeper into the country.

"A lot of things must have been left on when the power was cut, because suddenly you heard all these radios come on and the people started cheering," said Maj. John Taylor of the Royal Engineers.

Power means conveyer belts at the port's silos can begin functioning again, handling U.S. and Australian grain shipments waiting offshore.

Though food and water have already reached the Umm Qasr port, including the first Royal Navy supply ship last week, it remains too risky for aid groups to begin large-scale shipments into Iraq's interior.

Instead, they have serviced only the towns nearest the Kuwaiti border.

Umm Qasr's four-mile port, the main maritime connection between Iraq and the world, is still being cleared of mines. Just up the road in Basra, the country's second largest city, fighting rages between British troops and forces loyal to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

But the stage was set Tuesday for Umm Qasr to become the new lifeline for a Saddam-free Iraq. A water pipeline from Kuwait was opened a day earlier, bringing in 600,000 gallons a day to fill tanker trucks driven by Iraqis into newly liberated zones.

What aid has reached people in coalition-controlled zones has been distributed by troops -- extra ration packs, bottles of water, some medical care -- and in two truck shipments from the Kuwaiti Red Crescent Society last week.

The trucks were virtually looted by desperate Iraqis at a border town.

Aid agencies and coordinating military officials said that Iraq was facing a humanitarian problem short of a full crisis, but added the most pressing need everywhere was for clean drinking water.

"The top priority is water," said Marc Vergara, a spokesman for the U.N. Children's Fund. The agency sent private trucks filled with about 40,000 gallons of water Sunday. A second convoy brought over 25,000 gallons of water on Monday, delivered to hospitals, health centers, and schools.

Maj. Gen. Albert Whitley, the British officer coordinating military efforts with humanitarian relief operations, told a recent news briefing that water trucks would soon be running out of Umm Qasr to distribution points just short of Basra.

Water treatment has been degraded over the past 15 years and virtually no sewage plant in the country works, Whitley said. Nor are there chemicals to purify water.

"That means that the Tigris (River) in particular is a floating sewer," Whitley said. "That provides most of the water to the water treatment plants in Basra. It's no good digging a well, because you get the same stuff."

Cholera, typhoid and hepatitis are prevalent, particularly in Baghdad, Whitley said.

The Iraqi government claimed before the war started that people had a six-month supply of food. But the World Food Program has estimated that the true figure is about one to two months.

Iraq needs about 200,000 tons of food a month, and about 140,000 of that would pass through Umm Qasr, Whitley said. The U.S. government has earmarked 600,000 tons worth $300 million.

However, large-scale civilian aid won't begin until the fighting subsides. Most U.N. and other international aid agencies are staying in Kuwait until U.N. security experts complete inspection visits to southern Iraq. A team was expected to enter Iraq this week.

Their assessment is vital since the aid groups that carry out much of the work on the ground usually take their lead on security from the United Nations.

"These are early days still. Things are not safe yet," Vergara said. "It's a very volatile environment."

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