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Sunday March 30, 07:04 PM

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Umm Qasr dockers coaxed back to work

By Angus MacSwan

Click to enlarge photo

UMM QASR, Iraq (Reuters) - Dockers have come back to Umm Qasr port in southern Iraq after its capture by U.S. and British forces and have started trying to get it operating again, British military officials say.

The British were tracking down and recruiting as many port employees as they could, and hiring other workers to support the logistical effort behind the British and U.S. force occupying Umm Qasr.

"We hope to give them back their old jobs," said Major Allan Poulson of the Royal Logistics Corps.

Seizing the port, Iraq's main maritime outlet, was a key early objective of the military campaign launched to oust President Saddam Hussein.

The intention is to bring in humanitarian aid for Iraqis and military supplies for the U.S. and British through it.

A first shipment of aid arrived on the British ship Sir Galahad on Friday.

But much of the infrastructure, which includes gantry cranes for shipping containers, needs repairing. The workforce of about 1,000 disappeared when the invasion was launched on March 20.

"When we arrived, they had all gone," Poulson said.

The British want to bring back dockers, tugboat pilots, clerks, supervisors and other employees. A first group was gathered together and went back to work on Friday, he said.

They will earn slightly more than before, which was between $34-$38 (21-24 pounds) a month including a daily bonus of one dollar.

It was hoped the plan would also help alleviate some of the suffering in the Umm Qasr area, where food and water have been in short supply since the invasion and much economic activity has ground to a halt.

Forces loyal to Saddam are still mounting resistance in parts of the southeast, including Basra, home to many port workers.

The military liaised with a provisional town council formed after Saddam's ruling Baath Party was run out of Umm Qasr to find workers, Poulson said.

On Sunday afternoon, a line of around 85 hopefuls stood in the hot sun to try for jobs as kitchen staff, cleaners and general workers for the British and American force.

"We don't have jobs, water or work, so we decided to come here to get some money," said Haider Abdul Jabar, aged 20, formerly a student at an oil institute, filling in forms before a British corporal and an interpreter at desk in a tent.

Most of the Iraqis spoken to declined to give their names, saying they feared possible reprisals by Saddam loyalists. Several said they welcomed the British and American troops.

"What do we gain from Saddam...for us here there is nothing," said one 16-year-old in the line.

"There is no money, there is no work, even if they give us food and water it will not be easy for us".

"We know the British and the Americans came to help us. We are very grateful to them," said his friend.

But they added that they prayed the allied forces would stay. Many people in this predominantly Shi'ite Muslim corner of southeastern Iraq have bitter memories of their uprising in the wake of the U.S.-led 1991 Gulf War which was brutally crushed by Saddam, a Sunni Muslim, after the Americans halted the war.

Sunday's job-seekers were all given on-the-spot medical checks in the tent. Nurses and doctors screened them for typhoid, cuts and lesions, and diarrhoea, which could be dangerous as they would be handling food for the troops, Major Phillip Disney-Spier said. Some were malnourished, he added.

Their backgrounds will also be checked and cleared by military intelligence to prevent infiltrators from Saddam's forces getting in, Poulson said. Military police checked all of them for weapons or bombs before they entered the port compound.

About 60 made the cut and will start work on Monday.

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