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Friday, March 28

Relief port free of underwater mines, but area remains dangerous

By William H. McMichael | Navy Times

UMM QASR, Iraq - The British navy supply ship Sir Galahad pulled up to the dock here Friday afternoon loaded with 232 tons of water, rice, lentils, powered milk and other supplies intended for the citizens of Iraq. It was the first of what British and Americans say will be a stream of relief ships.

Humanitarian relief is a top priority for the British and Americans as they seek to win the hearts of the Iraqi people, even as they press a military assault deep into their country.

The ship's arrival at this once bustling but now nearly deserted port was delayed a day because sailors working to clear the shipping channel of mines found two suspected mines on Thursday.

British mine warfare ships detonated objects found by underwater censors in two spots along the 44-mile stretch of the silt-filled Khawr Abd Allah waterway.

"When they blew them up, they got secondary explosions. That means their detonation blew up something explosive,'' said U.S. Navy Lt. j.g. Jeremy Huff, assistant operations officer for a coalition task force charged with clearing the waterways.

The secondary explosions, coming on the sixth day of countermine operations here, provide the first strong evidence that Iraq may have laid at least some mines in this critical waterway to prevent coalition forces from accessing the port.

In the first week of the war, U.S. forces had discovered more than 100 Iraqi mines, but these were stowed aboard several boats at Umm Qasr and on two small crafts north of Warbah Island, just north of Kuwait's Bubiyan Island.

Navy Commodore Michael O'Moore of Brooklyn, N.Y., commander of the task group, did not hesitate to shut down the waterway to all except mine warfare ships. ``We established two mine danger areas,'' O'Moore said aboard the Norfolk, Va.-based amphibious transport dock ship Ponce, cruising in the northern Persian Gulf.

Although the shipping lane is now free of mines, U.S. troops said that the area outside the port remained dangerous.

"You've still got bad guys on the other side of the fence over here,'' said Senior Chief Boatswain's Mate Woody Carr, of Indianapolis, Ind., the assistant operations chief for Naval Special Clearance Team 1. "This compound is about as secure as you can get. But on the other side of that wall, we don't really own all of that. ... I'd call it, 'semi-permissive.' ''

Others concurred, saying they can hear small-arms fire near the old port at night and heavier fire farther north, near the new port, which remains unsecured, officials said. Members of Carr's team said British commandos were patrolling the town and running into some opposition.

"Every night is pretty exciting,'' Carr said.