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KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait — The leaders of coalition forces say the failure in 1991 to protect the Iraqis who revolted after the Persian Gulf War has made it considerably harder now to seize control of cities in Iraq.

The current drive by British troops to capture the southern Iraqi city of Basra, which has about 1.4 million people and is the country’s second-largest city, is being stymied by the fear that coalition forces will leave.

“We’re getting there, and it is slow,” said British army Col. Chris Vernon, spokesman for British land forces in Iraq. “Because of the ’91 putdown, it’s going to take time to build trust and show people we are here to stay.”

Following the Gulf War, people in Basra revolted against Saddam Hussein and his ruling Baath party, believing the same forces that drove the Iraqi army out of Kuwait would support them. But the expected help never arrived.

Members of Saddam’s Fedayeen militia and his Baath party have been fighting British troops since last week. Early reports said Shiite residents were also battling Saddam’s soldiers inside Basra.

Vernon said coalition forces want Iraqi citizens to rise up against the Baath party and ruling regime, but people are afraid because past experience has told them that if Hussein isn’t ousted, those who revolted most likely will be killed.

A story in Friday’s New York Times highlighted the distrust that permeates the city.

“The political analysts said the Shiites would rise up as they did in 1991,” the paper quoted Sheik Muhammad, a Basra resident in his 40s who is opposed to Saddam. “But neither the Shiites, nor any other Muslims, trust the Americans.”

Many people, he added, believe the United States collaborated with Saddam, a Sunni Muslim, against the Shiites when Washington incited the people to rebel and then left them to face the Iraqi leader’s wrath.

“In 1991, the Shiites were let down and felt betrayed, and that left a deep wound in their hearts,” Muhammad was quoted as saying, echoing a sentiment repeated across Iraq.

This time, coalition forces have to prove to Basra residents that the forces won’t leave or allow Saddam to remain in power, Vernon said.

British forces, the ones now most active in fighting in and around Basra, have taken out TV and radio towers in the city, destroyed a statue of Saddam in the city center, leveled the Baath party headquarters building and the places its members used for meetings, Vernon said. British forces also have set up several water and food distribution centers outside the city, he said.

Although troops are attacking Baath party sites and suspected locations of Iraqi irregular fighters, much of the war is psychological, an attempt to destroy the resolve and will of opposition fighters and empower resistance forces, Vernon said.

“The problem is not with the people, but with the Baath party and Saddam Hussein,” he said Thursday.

Day by day, Vernon explained, people are gaining courage to turn against their current leaders.

“If we were not living with the legacy of the ’91 putdown, it would be a lot easier,” he said. “We could not estimate this level of fear. It just runs so deep.”


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