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Soldiers welcomed with fuel and water

PUBLISHED: 13:02 11 April 2003 | UPDATED: 13:43 03 March 2010

"JUST because someone don't have running water, don't mean they're stupid," someone remarked with the knowingness of a British NCO when we turned up the tomato growers' settlement of clay huts surrounded by square islets of green that broke up the hazy monotony of the desert.

"JUST because someone don't have running water, don't mean they're stupid," someone remarked with the knowingness of a British NCO when we turned up the tomato growers' settlement of clay huts surrounded by square islets of green that broke up the hazy monotony of the desert.

The last time I accompanied British soldiers to this dusty hamlet off the main Baghdad to Basra highway, the Marsh Arabs, it seemed, had their number.

Red tape at brigade headquarters had thwarted the CIMIC team's attempt to deliver a truckload of drinking water at a pre-arranged time and place. So the civil and military co-operation officers turned up empty-handed and with journalists in tow who could record only the locals' frustration.

"What are you going to do? Are you just going to hand over a few bottles of water just to take pictures?" one angrily demanded through the interpreter.

But it was early days. Throughout history, the Marsh Arabs have seen too many invaders posing as liberators whose offers of freedom had left them with little else other than crushed hopes and the ire of a ruling regime whose memory was long and revenge mercilessly swift.

Bitter experience has taught them the folly of backing the wrong horse and this time they wanted to be fully sure of the shrewdness of their bet. Who wouldn't, when twelve years ago, the hollow promises of George W. Bush's father stoked up a revolt against Saddam in nearby Basra that was snuffed out by the former dictator's ruthless regime and an ill-fated British incursion into First World War Mesopotamia divided the great-grandfathers of the salad farmers today queuing conga-style, hands on waists, between Ottoman Turks and British colonial rule?

And as they witnessed Saddam's regime crumble into a cloud of brick dust on the handful of TV sets and radios in the village, their attitude had visibly changed.

At first naturally suspicious of soldiers whose offer of humanitarian aid came shielded by full body armour and guns at the ready, events of the last week had dismantled their initial wariness as quickly as they had stripped a stranded US Marine Amtrak nearby for spare parts. More or less intact a week ago, it had obviously been 'recycled', scattered by the roadside like the skeleton of a beached whale.

Some 60,000 litres of water were being distributed to more than 1,000 people in five villages. Crucial to the strategy of allowing the Marsh Arabs to begin trading "to help themselves" were 11,500 litres of diesel to fuel their water pumps to irrigate their salad crops to sell at local markets and six thousand litres of petrol to help get them back in business.

"They're a lot more friendly now," said Corporal Ian Brain, 28, 3 Army Air Corps' Arabic specialist, form Ipswich, as he improved his local dialects. "But if you keep giving them water, who wouldn't be? The culture isn't one where gift-horses are stared in the mouth. I've explained to the people here on the way round that Saddam has fallen from power and that there's no Ba'ath Party and their faces just light up straight away."

Saddam's name is brushed away with gnarled hands when he is mentioned. "Bush good, Blair good, John Major good," is the well-practised litany as around 200 people gathered at one of the stop-offs by the community's boys-only school, which is still waiting for its teachers to return. The village now wants a school for its girls.

Tough-looking Gurkhas marshalled the queue as the villagers built small piles of boxed drinking water for each family or gave the 18kg boxes to their women, who carted them off on their heads to their homes a few hundred yards away.

At one point one of the elders motioned as if to say 'enough' but the CIMIC officer had to insist. Beautiful faces of astoundingly beautiful children lost their wizened visage amid the liberal flow of sweets doled out by the troops, who had swapped their helmets for berets.

Among the smiles, there were complaints. The locals told me in pidgin English and very loud Arabic they wanted doctors - the pace at which Army medics are renovating the village clinic is clearly too slow for them. And the same man who claimed the coalition forces blew up his own car in our first meeting a week ago is not letting go of the idea that the British must give him a replacement.

Gary Smyth, a warrant officer second class with 3 Army Air Corps, from Trimley St Martin, sounded a note of caution. "These people have no idea what's coming their way, the benefits they're going to get. As long as the Iraqis get the right people in charge these people will definitely benefit."

Phase Four, the post-conflict humanitarian stage of Gulf War Two, has officially begun.


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