UMM QASR, Iraq - The U.S. military came up with a solution yesterday for the penniless people of this port town begging for water: Sell it.
Despite general mayhem at distribution points - including knife fights - the Army has struck a hasty agreement with local Iraqis to expedite distribution of water to the roughly 40,000 living here.
Under the deal, the military will provide water free to locals with access to tanker trucks, who then will be allowed to sell the water for a "reasonable" fee.
"We're permitting them to charge a small fee for water," said Army Col. David Bassert.
"This provides them with an incentive to hustle and to work," said Bassert, an assistant commander with the 354th Civil Affairs Brigade.
He said he could not suggest what constitutes a reasonable fee and did not know what the truckers were charging. He said the tradition here of haggling at markets would help the system work.
"People know when they're being gouged - we'll deal with it," Bassert said.
But with the population badly in need of water, food and medical supplies, the arrangement drew its share of critics.
'This is crazy'
Several Iraqi-Americans originally from this region, who are working as interpreters and guides with the U.S. military, were incensed at what they consider an attempt to jump-start a free-market economy during a crisis.
"This is bull----," said an Iraqi-American who asked to be identified only as Ahmed. "They are selling water and this is crazy. Nobody has any money, nobody knows what is money [to use] - Iraqi money, American money, nobody knows."
A British military spokesman angrily objected to the water deal. The British control the city of Umm Qasr while the Americans are in charge of the port.
"We're not going to have any charging for water. What kind of an aid plan would that be? These people don't even have shoes," the spokesman said.
Ahmed and the others said they had seen fights with fists and knives among desperate locals trying to get water from the truckers.
Ill at ease
The reports could not be independently confirmed because a promised military escort for reporters into town never took place.
Officers said the trip was canceled because of widespread clashes between remnants of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's supporters and British troops, although no firing could be heard and the Iraqi-Americans who spent the afternoon in town said no clashes had taken place.
But the general situation was far from secure. A heavy mortar or artillery round launched toward the port shook buildings and rattled windows but exploded beyond the fence and caused no casualties.
Editor's Note: The military has confiscated the satellite phones of a certain make used by journalists traveling with U.S. troops in Iraq, including those used by reporter Richard Sisk and photographer Todd Maisel of the Daily News, for fear that Iraqi forces could intercept the signal and target U.S. positions. This dispatch has been sent by other means approved by the military, but military officials did not review or restrict its contents.
© 2003 Daily News, L.P.