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KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait — Coalition forces are holding up the southern Iraqi city of Basra as an example of how military occupation could flow into civilian rule.

“There is no one better than the local Iraqis to decide how to do it and who to put in place,” said British army Col. Chris Vernon, spokesman for British land forces in Iraq. “They know better than us.”

British forces essentially dealt the deathblow Sunday to the ruling Baath party in Basra, a city of roughly 1.5 million people, when bombing obliterated the party’s headquarters.

Ali Hassan al-Majid, the man known as “Chemical Ali” and is a cousin of Saddam Hussein, possibly was killed in the bombardment.

That same night, coalition leaders spent two hours meeting with a local tribal sheik, who offered to be an interim leader for the Basra province. Vernon said the man, whom he declined to identify, would be asked to put together a ruling committee that represents the local population.

That will be the beginning of a civil authority in the city, Vernon said.

“We will take him on his word for his judgment,” Vernon said. “We’re not on any time line, but we’re going to get out of here as soon as possible.”

Coalition troops know enough about the man to consider him trustworthy, Vernon said, expressing confidence that the sheik could instill the calm, stability and trust needed in the region to allow coalition forces to leave sooner rather than later.

“We’d like to see it [a civilian ruling authority] as soon as possible. Iraq is not a dysfunctional country,” he said.

He deliberately noted Iraq is different from Afghanistan or the former Yugoslavia. Iraq, Vernon said, is not torn apart by tribal feuding or warring factions split along ethnic lines.

The manner in which the British military gained control of Basra may be a blueprint for what U.S. forces will do in Baghdad.

First, British troops surrounded the city and then began using fairly precise attacks to eliminate the city’s political leaders.

As forces remained in Basra’s outskirts, they gathered information from locals about where those leaders were, and, for roughly a week, systematically eliminated key regime figures while trying to minimize civilian deaths and empower local Iraqis.

Sunday’s offensive by 3,000 ground troops, coupled with 90 tanks and more than 75 armored fighting vehicles, crushed the Baath party’s chokehold of fear that had caused the city residents to hesitate in resisting the ruling regime.

“Basra is now free, and the final element of vicious Baath control is extinguished,” Vernon said Monday morning in Kuwait City, about 60 miles south of Basra.

Coalition forces, which in the southern part of Iraq are primarily led by the British, are now trying to mobilize a local police force and ensure that food and water are plentiful.

“There is no humanitarian crisis,” he said. British troops have about 20 water tankers in the region “and food is very plentiful.”

Vernon believed most Iraqi regular and irregulars have either been killed or have become prisoners of war. There are about 4,000 POWs being held in southern Iraq.


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