The first trickle of food aid reached this battered and impoverished southern city Thursday as U.S. Marines distributed bright yellow plastic bags of rice, beans and other basic foodstuffs.

"They were grateful. They accepted them without reservation," said Kyle Norris, a U.S. Navy hospitalman.

Norris was helping treat up to 100 civilians a day at a highway crossroads held by the Echo Company of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which is trying to keep key supply routes open to the north. He said not many people, except for a few ill babies, appear malnourished. Nearby, Marines said, a sign painted in English by local residents said, "We don't need food, we need freedom."

As people in many parts of Iraq celebrated hopes of new freedom, hundreds lined up outside a Marine headquarters in Nasiriyah awaiting food rations, fresh water and medical help.

Entire families walked away from the compound, clutching their unopened ration bags, smiling and flashing the thumbs-up sign or waving to passing troops. Some children, perhaps having seen Marines eager to buy cigarettes and soft drinks after weeks in the field, tried unsuccessfully to sell their ration packets to the troops.

Most hurried home on foot with their new bounty.

Echo Company commander Capt. Pete McAleer of San Diego said Marines have received about 7,000 ration packs, each with enough basic food to last a small family for a day. He said his company plans to head into the poorest neighborhoods of Nasiriyah in coming days to distribute rations.

"Our goal is to go out into the community and give it to the most needy," McAleer said. "But I think the best aid we can give them is a new government."

Next week, U.S. military civilian affairs experts are expected in the city to help get utilities running, send key local staff back to work and build the basics of a civilian administration.

On Thursday, Marines began taping up posters around the city with American flags and the Arabic text. The rough translation, according to Norris: "Help the United States change Iraq into a free Iraq."

Residents complain that conditions remain difficult in the city, which was bombarded by fighting as U.S. forces battled to take control.

"We want electricity. We want water -- clean water, not the dirty water in the pipes," Kuwait-born Iraqi Abdullah Najeeb, 27, said earlier this week. "Now, in this situation, we need things that are useful to the people."

The Marines have already set up temporary water treatment facilities, where each day hundreds of Iraqis in the downtown area fill buckets and cans from nozzles and hoses resembling gasoline pumps. In many parts of the city, power and water have been restored.

Others worry of looting, and their country's future.

"Many things have been stolen," said Ali, a 26-year-old student of English who asked that only his first name be used. "We have nothing."

Ali cringed at the thought of Iraq eventually having a new government, and possibly a new president. For as long as he could remember, statues and portraits of Saddam Hussein were everywhere. Most have now been torn down.

He said he welcomed the Americans -- as long as their intention was to free Iraq and then leave.

"If they try to stay," said Ali, "we will push them out."