Brigadier Jim Dutton, responsible for all British forces in the sector, told reporters he hoped the first ship bringing aid to Iraq would arrive within 48 hours. Ships and divers were first checking waterways for mines.
It was not the first time the United States and Britain said they had taken control of Umm Qasr. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said four days ago they had done so, but the military later admitted Iraqi gunmen were still fighting in the town, although the ports themselves were secure.
In Baghdad, Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan dismissed claims that Umm Qasr, located on the border with Kuwait, had fallen to the U.S. and British forces.
“They hovered around the airport of Umm Qasr but have not entered it,” he told a news conference. “They have not even entered the first Iraqi town.”
However, Dutton said “Umm Qasr is now safe and open and we are beginning to deliver aid, or we will be shortly. We are finding out who the local movers and shakers are, so we can get things going.”
Residents of Umm Qasr told Reuters the town had been left without water supplies or electricity and that stocks of food were running low and the market was empty.
U.S. Rear Admiral Charles Kubic, commander of the First Marine Expeditionary Force engineers group, told Reuters U.S. and British engineers would be fixing up power, water and sanitation and repairing buildings.
“Now that the city of Umm Qasr has been liberated, there is a lot of work to be done to get the port back operating so that commerce can begin and relief aid can be brought in,” he said.
The U.S. and Britain have been under increasing international pressure to provide humanitarian aid to the people of Iraq.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Monday the United Nations wants to resume humanitarian aid to Iraq as soon as possible and will work with whoever is in charge after the fighting.
The U.N.’s oil-for-food program fed about 60 percent of Iraq’s 22 million people before it was halted by last week’s start of the U.S.-led war.
U.N. Security Council experts, who met Monday to discuss the issue, expressed hope a resolution to resume the program would be adopted later this week. One diplomat said there was general agreement in the council to allow Annan to run the program for 45 days.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to meet with Annan Tuesday to discuss Iraqi humanitarian issues.
Iraq’s Vice President Taha Yasin Ramadan has blasted Annan’s resolution.
In a scathing letter sent to Annan on Friday, Ramadan accused the secretary-general of trying to take over the program from the Iraqi government on orders from the United States and Britain.