BASRA, Iraq – British troops began a massive effort Tuesday to distribute water to battle-weary residents of Basra but were unable to quell the spate of looting that erupted when the soldiers moved into Iraq's second largest city.
The British, who took control of the heart of Basra on Monday, sent 10 huge water tankers through city streets carrying 5,280 gallons of water each. Troops stood guard outside the tanks to try to impose an orderly distribution of water and to keep the thirsty crowds at bay.
People carrying whatever containers they could get hold of -- vegetable tins, plastic jugs -- mobbed the trucks, filling their containers with water.
"If they (the British) 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.
"I want safety now. We want government, we want police. Now it's no good. Good people, honest people are afraid," said an engineer standing in front of the Sheraton Hotel. He also declined to give his name.
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.
Reminders of the Saddam Hussein regime were destroyed, with hundreds cheering when British soldiers tore down a six-foot high circular picture of the Iraqi leader from its stand in the center of town, according to a British pool report.
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."
Even as they consolidated their grip on Basra, the British said they were putting a local sheik into power in the 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 been given the job of setting up an administrative committee representing other groups in the region.
Looting was rampant for a second straight day, as young men cruised through the city in trucks, pickups and jalopies, even bicycles, grabbing what they could from shops and buildings -- ceiling fans, car seats, furniture, even slabs of wood.
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 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 very upset by the plundering of the hotel.
"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.
The telephone system in Basra had all but stopped functioning, because looters had stripped the utility bare.