Voice from the Commonwealth Commentary, World Views and Occasional Rants from a small 'l' libertarian in Massachussetts
"If ye love wealth greater than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest for freedom, go home and leave us in peace. We seek not your council nor your arms. Crouch down and lick the hand that feeds you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen." - Samuel Adams
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In the first days after coalition forces rolled through this dusty mud-walled town just south of Basra, Saddam Hussein had plenty of friends. Young men waved posters with his face for the cameras. Small boys yelled "Saddam! Saddam!" The few that criticized the regime did so in nervous whispers.
Less than a week later, after a coalition raid netted the top Baath Party official in town for questioning and tanks took out some of the young men firing rocket-propelled grenades from the roadside, Saddam's public popularity is nose-diving.
"All Iraqis want to be rid of this regime. We just can't say that," said Jasser, a stout and serious older man in a blue robe who showed up at a coalition medical center Thursday looking for antacid tablets for his wife.
"Resistance is dangerous," he said. "When troops first came in they didn't demolish the party apparatus here, and that created problems. But now we feel more secure."
Iraqis "like to be on the right side, and finding out which is the right side is the hardest thing for them," said British Maj. Andy "Jock" Docherty, an Arabic-language translator working with troops of the Black Watch Regiment trying to pacify Az-Zubayr.
But military and humanitarian successes are slowly winning over southern Iraqis. Several key members of the ruling Baath Party have been found hanged in the region in recent days, Docherty said, and coalition forces hope successes in the south may fuel uprisings to the north.
"If we can crack a few nuts in Basra and Al Nasiriya, I think Baghdad could fall overnight with the right moves," Docherty predicted. If Iraqis are convinced the coalition is winning, they will attack the ruling party and "do the cleanup we can't and find the people we can't find."
On Monday, British military officials in Az-Zubayr got word that a leading Baath Party official was organizing the resistance. Early Tuesday they went to get him.
At dawn they rammed tanks through the high wall surrounding the man's two-story house. As soldiers kicked open the front door, shots came from the building and a heavy firefight broke out. When it was over, 20 Iraqi fighters were dead or wounded, and the ruling-party leader was led away for interrogation.
"He was certainly surprised," said Maj. Dougie Hay, a Black Watch commander who led the raid. "It was a demonstration we could mount successful operations in the area and show them they are dealing with a highly capable force."
Coalition forces followed up with an assault on Iraqi soldiers holding a large military camp west of town. Under heavy fire, the remnants of the resistance fled or were killed, leaving behind hastily vacated buildings strewn with gas masks, military briefing books, boxes of grenades and lines of anti-aircraft guns hidden in hallways.
Since then, British troops passing through the town's narrow streets have come under limited fire and have in turn taken out men launching rocket-propelled grenades. Little by little, Az-Zubayr is coming under control.
That slowly building dominance, day by day, is changing the reception for coalition troops.
"It's obvious people have been intimidated by the militias," Hay said. Now "most of the locals have been very pleased to see us."
That was evident Thursday as British and U.S. soldiers held the town's first large-scale aid distribution outside the seized Iraqi military base. An attempt to hand out food Wednesday was aborted when a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at the base. But on Thursday women in black robes with blue crosses tattooed on their faces and clamoring young men and dusty children jostled to get their share of a container-load of bottled drinking water and food.
"We are afraid of Saddam's fighters. Things are better since you got here," Talia Sharfa, one black-robed woman in the crowd, told soldiers as she clutched her toddler daughter, Sara.
U.S. forces "should bomb (the ruling party) wherever they are. Baghdad is the most important. When it's done everything will change," said Jasser, who agreed to an interview only out of the sight of others awaiting aid.
He asked the question everyone in southern Iraq asks: "Will the Iraqi regime remain or not?"
"If this coalition does not remove the regime, half of us will die," he said. "We will be killed just for talking to you. Saddam's eyes are all over here."
He pointed toward an area he said remained a Baath Party stronghold in town.
"The Iraqi regime kills civilians for going against it. If they even think you're against the regime they kill you," he said.
This is why we need to take over the television signals coming out of Baghdad. Images of Coalition troops advancing and happy Iraqis getting food water and medical attention and talking about their new freedom will encourage others to organize against local Ba'athist party members and give up their positions and caches to incoming Coalition troops.
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