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Brits Tap Sheik To Run Basra

Children in the Iraqi town of Basra, step on a portrait of Saddam Hussein Tuesday April 8, 2003.
AP / CBS
As they consolidated their grip on Basra, British commanders said Tuesday they were putting a local sheik into power in Iraq's second largest city.

Speaking in Kuwait City, Col. Chris Vernon, spokesman for the British forces, said the sheik, who was not identified, met British divisional commanders Monday and had been given the job of setting up an administrative committee representing other groups in the region.

The installment of the sheik was, on its face, in keeping with the insistence by the United States and Britain that they intended to move Iraqis into as many positions of authority as possible, as quickly as was feasible.

Meeting in Northern Ireland on Tuesday, Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush pledged that the government of Iraq would rapidly return to Iraqi hands.

"This new Iraq that is to emerge is not to be run by us or by the U.N. — that is a false choice. It is to be run by the Iraqi people," Blair said. Mr. Bush said an interim postwar government would involve Iraqis living in country, as well as dissidents now residing abroad.

Despite elevating the sheik, British troops maintained a heavy presence in the city; armored personnel carriers and tanks patrolled the main street. Armored tanks were also positioned in front of the police headquarters.

British troops swept through the oil-rich port city on Monday, greeted by huge crowds of welcoming residents and by chaotic looting.

Soldiers destroyed reminders of the Iraqi regime, with hundreds cheering when British soldiers tore down a circular picture of Saddam Hussein from its stand in the center of town, according to British pool reports.

Basra residents then took the picture, rolled it to a nearby bridge and dumped it in the water, the report said. Other troops in the city were greeted enthusiastically by residents who had memorized a single English phrase: `Thank you for helping us, mister."

British troops on Tuesday began a massive effort to distribute water to battle-weary Basra residents but were unable to quell looting that erupted when the soldiers moved into the Iraq's second largest city.

Young men cruised through the city in trucks, pickups and even bicycles, grabbing what they could from shops and buildings — ceiling fans, car seats, furniture, even slabs of wood.

People carrying whatever containers they could get hold of — vegetable tins, plastic jugs — mobbed the trucks, filling their containers with water.

British troops tried to maintain order at the Sheraton Hotel, the site of heavy looting on Monday. Two tanks guarded the hotel, but when one of the tanks began to pull away, dozens of people who were waiting outside began to cheer and then tried to enter the gates of the hotel.

On Monday, mobs had invaded the hotel, taking out tables, chairs, carpets — and even the grand piano that had once stood in the lobby.

While not all the damage could be attributed to mobs — there was an unexploded missile in the pool among other signs of war — Riyadh al Amar, the managing director of the Sheraton, was upset by the plundering.

"I afraid not of the British but of the poor people. There's no security here. We need control in the town. When the British entered, there should have been police with them," he said.

British forces sent in 10 huge water tankers through city streets carrying more than 5,200 gallons of water each. Troops stood guard outside the tanks to try to impose an orderly distribution of water and to keep the crowds at bay.

Meanwhile, the telephone system in Basra had all but ceased functioning after looters stripped the utility bare.

"If they want to liberate Iraq, they must do so by giving us electricity, law and order. That's the only way to liberate Iraq," said a young Iraqi man standing in front of a water tanker who did not want to give his name.

Last week, the Times of London reported that some British troops had actually encouraged looting as a sign of rebellion against Saddam's regime.