British engage local leader for Basra self-rule

BASRA took a step towards self-rule yesterday after British troops asked a local tribal leader to set up a body to lead the population. The local sheikh, who has not been named, has been enlisted

The development came as British troops in Iraq’s second city began a massive effort to distribute water to the local population amid scenes of looting.

Colonel Chris Vernon, British military spokesman based in Kuwait, told Sky News:

“We have been approached by a local tribal leader. He will form a presence of leadership in the Basra province and we have asked him to form a committee from the local community he thinks is representative of the local people. Yesterday the approach taken by British forces around Basra won praise from US President George Bush who paid tribute to soldiers involved in the battle for Basra.

At a press conference in Northern Ireland, President Bush said the Royal Marines in Basra had worked hard to liberate the people.

He added: “When we said we would come and stay and achieve their liberty, we meant it.

“They are beginning to realise freedom is real. These are people in the south of Iraq who had been

betrayed, tortured, who had believed they were going to be freed and had been absolutely hammered by the Iraqi regime.”

However, sporadic fighting continued in Iraq’s second city yesterday and there were scenes of chaos as looters set about ripping the city’s buildings apart for scrap.

Young men cruised through the city in pick-up trucks and on bicycles, grabbing what they could from shops and buildings, according to reports. British troops also tried to maintain order at the Sheraton Hotel, the site of heavy looting yesterday.

Two tanks guarded the hotel, but when one began to pull away, dozens of people who were waiting outside began to cheer and then tried to enter the gates.

Looters raided the hotel yesterday, removing tables, chairs, carpets and even the grand piano that once stood in the lobby.

Sky News showed British soldiers attempting to control a riotous crowd in Basra after a group of men grabbed bags of sugar and grain from a store.

Major Gen Peter Wall, chief of staff of British forces at Central Command in Qatar, said troops would for now turn a blind eye to civilians looting shops and homes.

“Of course, it is not a pleasant prospect, but it’s very difficult to predict how people who have been liberated from 20 years of oppression are going to react when suddenly they have some freedom,” he said “There isn’t an effective police force. It’s very difficult at this stage to contain that sort of activity. It’s only 24 hours since the lid came off the regime control of Basra, and we hope things will settle down in the next few days.”

Troops would now be looking for people to form a civilian police force in the city, he added.

He said the battle for Basra was not completely over, because there was still the possibility for limited resistance.

“Our forces in proportion to the population are not large and there could be renegade elements in a position to make life difficult for ” he added.

More in this section

IE_logo_newsletters

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox