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Basra Fuming Over Electricity, Fuel Shortages

Murtadah Noori remembers being in the crowd that stormed the offices of Iraq 's feared military intelligence in Basra during a failed uprising against Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War .

Not surprisingly, Noori, who said he was beaten and detained in an Iraqi jail for six months in 1992, rejoiced when British troops seized the southern city on April 7. But now the stocky 32-year-old taxi driver's anger is directed at the U.S.-led coalition.

The British "offered us false promises ... now I want them to leave," Noori said as he waited in line with scores of other drivers outside a gas station. Vehicles stretched hundreds of yards up the road, while British troops in armored personnel carriers kept watch at the empty pumps.

During the weekend, Basra (search) residents rioted — Noori included — throwing rocks and bricks at British troops to protest days of fuel, water and electricity shortages in this city of 1.5 million where temperatures routinely soar above 122 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity can be stifling.

Basra is fast becoming an example of the difficulty facing the coalition as it tries to rebuild a nation devastated by war and sanctions while the goodwill of the people melts in the searing summer heat.

Coalition forces say they will bring in massive amounts of gasoline and diesel fuel. They say they are improving the supply of electricity, but many residents still complain it's not working and threaten to rise up again — armed this time — if the situation doesn't improve.

"If you read our history, you will find that the biggest uprising against the British forces was in the southern part of Iraq," Noori said, referring to battles during World War I after British troops invaded Iraq, then part of the Ottoman Empire (search). Iraq regained full independence in 1932.

Others nodded in agreement, angered by hours — sometimes nights — waiting for fuel, then returning to their homes to find water or electricity still lacking. Like others, Noori has been taking his wife, Enas, and 1-year-old son, Ali, to the flat roof of their house to sleep.

"I don't feel it's safe, but what can I do?" he said.

Basra is a city that has endured endless suffering. During the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq conflict Iranian troops reached Basra's outskirts and the ancient city was heavily bombed, forcing hundreds of people to flee. American jets attacked the city in the 1991 Gulf War. Coalition forces bombed it again during the latest war.

In between, Saddam, a northern Sunni Muslim, mercilessly put down uprisings in the region, killing tens of thousands of southern Shiites. He also neglected the city — Iraq's second largest — compounding the impact of the U.N. sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which led to the Gulf War.

This once prosperous port — at the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab (search) waterway and southern Iraq's outlet to the Persian Gulf on the borders with Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia — has become a place of garbage-strewn streets and decaying buildings, its famous canals polluted.

If any region had reason to welcome the coalition's advances, it was Basra. Many here did, but changes for the better have not materialized.

The trees that line the city's dusty streets are being hacked down for firewood and its people are angry and frustrated as the cost of basic goods, like cooking gas and ice, soars.

Mario Maiolini, the coalition's deputy regional coordinator in the south, blamed the fuel, power and water problems on oil smugglers, the region's "absolutely obsolete" infrastructure and saboteurs — suspected Saddam loyalists.

But he acknowledged that the population is suffering and desperate for signs of improvement.

"We should not create a situation likely to provoke discontent; we should be aware that the reconstruction of the country should go ahead as quickly as possible," Maiolini told The Associated Press.

Iain Pickard, the coalition spokesman in Basra, said expectations were too high, in part because "some people" — coalition officials — made promises without taking into account the state of the infrastructure.

Progress will have to be hasty if Basrans are to be satisfied. Some already are suggesting life was better under Saddam's brutal rule.

"Is this freedom?" a young man asks as he walks past men and children filling up containers from a privately owned water tanker. He then pointed to a banknote baring Saddam's face. "Saddam good."