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Tahsin, 26, a laborer, has just left the city by foot after the arrest of his brother, whom he saw militiamen beat down with the butts of their guns. Working off his fear, Tahsin says vehemently, "They are shooting people who are saying anything against them, and you don't know who they are because they are all dressed like civilians." He says the Baath Party members and militia fighters use civilians' houses as refuges. And some have mounted mortars on the backs of pickups that can move quickly after firing. The British are wary about returning fire into civilian areas.
In the past 24 hours, the frontline British checkpoint has advanced to about a mile inside Basra's southern border. Standing behind several Challenger II tanks and a Warrior APC are Captain James Moulton and soldiers of his company of Irish Guards. They check those coming down the road for weapons and then hand them leaflets promising that this time, the coalition forces will stay as long as it takes--and asking for assistance in pinpointing the enemy. "Now they are getting more used to us Brits being around," says Moulton. "A lot more people are offering information about the situation inside Basra and where the Fedayeen positions are." But still the British are cautious, advancing little more than half a mile a day into the city.
Yet the fear is palpable even 5 miles south of Basra in the town of Zubayr, which the British captured earlier in the week. The director of the hospital there, Dr. Abdul Hussein, points to the two holes made by an antitank round as it passed straight through the walls of his office while he stood there. What he is afraid to admit--and a local resident and a British medical officer later confirm--is that the militia had been using his hospital as a base to fire on the British forces.
The militia are gone from Zubayr, but Dr. Hussein is apprehensive about a breakdown in security in the town. "It is very unsafe," he says. "There is no police force, no administrative apparatus of any kind." The British have instituted a 7 p.m. curfew but have few spare troops to patrol the streets. During the day, the town appears to be getting back to normal, with foodstuffs appearing in the market. But normality has its limits.
In a tea shop the talk among the men is about the need for the Americans and British to supply water and electricity for the town as soon as possible. Suddenly a middle-aged man in a checked shirt elbows his way in and announces his support for the regime. "If Saddam is going to fall, there are thousands of Saddams to replace him," he declares. Then he reaches down with his hand and smears some dust from the floor with his fingers. "Foreigners are not worthy to step on even a single speck of sand of Iraq." Then the men, who only seconds before had been happily bantering with foreign journalists, suddenly turn hostile and unwelcoming, afraid to be viewed as being friendly with the infidels.