Stocked with food, medicine, blankets and water, the ship docked in Iraq’s only deepwater port at 4:28 p.m. local time (8:28 EST).
The British mine-detecting ship HMS Sandown was just ahead of it, clearing the route. The security escort underscored the lingering risks of navigating the Khor Abdallah waterway, where U.S. and British minesweeping teams have found and detonated six potential mines in the past 36 hours.
“It’s very likely [Saddam] would mine these waters to prevent coalition forces from entering,” said U.S. Navy Commander Ian Hall, who coordinates four American “mine hunter” ships that have been methodically sweeping the channel with six British counterparts.
Hall told the Associated Press his teams could not positively confirm whether the recently detonated mines were newly laid or remaining from earlier Iraqi wars, but he said that the location of several were highly “suspicious.”
Throughout the trip, the captain of the Sir Galahad, Roger Robinson-Brown, kept his crew on the ship’s highest security alert. Beside mines, the biggest threats to the ship were fast-moving Iraqi “suicide boats” loaded with explosives, he told the Associated Press.
Iraqi boats partially loaded with mines had been found tied up to docks in the port town.
British Royal Marine commandos finished fully securing Umm Qasr on Tuesday. Coalition forces have said emergency aid to the Iraqi population would be a major priority in coming days.
Plans to get the much-needed aid to Iraqi civilians have been delayed for days because of continued battles across southern Iraq, including skirmishes with guerrilla fighters in Umm Qasr and intense fighting around the key southern city of Basra.
With war disrupting that flow, aid agencies have warned of a potential humanitarian crisis in Iraq, where a dozen years of economic sanctions have left some 60 percent of the 27 million people completely dependent on government rations.
Umm Qasr was heavily used in pre-war days as the main entry point for supplies bought through the U.N.-administered oil-for-food program. Annually, an estimated 3 million tons of grain, 1 million tons of dry foods, and 750,000 containers came through the port.
Sir Galahad’s cargo — about 300 tons of water and emergency rations of sugar, beans and flour stacked from floor to ceiling in the ship’s hold — is the first large shipment of aid to reach Iraq since the war began. There is enough food on the ship to feed a medium sized town for several days, according to Robinson-Brown.
He told the Associated Press that while the aid itself is important, the coalition needs “to show that we’ve got the port open for business to receive more aid.”
Also Friday, two trucks of Kuwaiti aid arrived in the border town of Safwan. Like an aid distribution two days ago, people ripped doors open of the aid trucks and grabbed boxes of food. It was a mob scene without orderly distribution, according to the Associated Press. Residents of the town are suffering from severe shortages of food and water.