There is no town manager in this vital Iraqi seaport and there are no police. Many local officials have either been arrested by coalition troops or have fled.

So when mines have to be cleared from the harbor and streets secured, Steve Cox is the man to see.

The British colonel has emerged as the town boss of Umm Qasr, which U.S. Marines seized after four days of street-to-street combat against Iraqi paramilitary fighters.

While coalition forces turn the city into an aid pipeline for the rest of Iraq, Cox and his Royal Marines walk among the wary citizens, trying to win their trust.

"We're trying to get them to understand that this is free Iraq," Cox said.

The local Shiite Muslim community, long oppressed by Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-dominated regime, were crushed when they rebelled after the 1991 Gulf War. The United States had urged them to rise up, then failed to support them, and resentment lingers.

In contrast to the prosperity of Kuwait across the border, the 30,000 people of Umm Qasr live in unpainted, mud-brick houses fronting dusty streets strewn with plastic scraps and other garbage.

The level of education is generally low. As convoys of troops roll by, women in black veils stand before their homes begging for food, while their men hope for cigarettes.

Much of the port is in disrepair. Minesweepers are still clearing the channel as grain silos and warehouses stand empty. Humanitarian agencies are still gauging whether it's safe to begin operations.

Amid the chaos, Cox has embraced his new role.

He looks every inch the British military officer -- bristling iron gray mustache, erect bearing, direct but eloquent speech and a beret with the insignia of the unit he commands, the Royal Marine Commandos.

A 31-year-veteran of the Royal Marines, Cox has completed tours of duty in Northern Ireland, Europe, the Mediterranean, Rwanda, Albania, Kuwait and, last year, Afghanistan. He is qualified in Arctic and jungle warfare and diving.

His troops patrol the streets Northern Ireland-style, in pairs down either side of the road. They've replaced their hard combat helmets with berets to help residents feel more comfortable.

Cox has tried to root out leaders of Saddam's Baath Party. Increasingly confident local people have helped him find about 35 officials who have been taken into custody, he said. And some of the massive, tiled portraits of Saddam have been defaced in Umm Qasr in recent days.

Cox has also created an ad hoc council of six civilians, including teachers and doctors, to advise him on what residents need.

"It's a big concept from being totally oppressed to now saying, `OK, you're in free Iraq," Cox said. "I asked a doctor why he hadn't taken a picture of Saddam off his desk. He said, `Well, he might just come back.' Then I saw him today and the picture was gone."

Royal Engineers specializing in port and utility operations have been scrambling to repair the city's infrastructure.

The lights went back on Monday, and a water pipeline has been laid from Kuwait to bring in 600,000 gallons of water a day. The southern end of the port has been cleared of mines, enabling a British supply ship to dock last week.

Port employees have slowly started turning up for work again. All who arrive are questioned by British soldiers.

"The aim of the game here is to transfer this entire facility over to a civil authority as soon as possible," said Maj. John Taylor of the Royal Engineers. "We're working actively to do this."