Saddam’s bully boys turned the local school into fort of missiles and grenades

By Richard Edwards

There are no children or teachers at Father Firas Primary School in the port town of Umm Qasr.

Instead, scattered amongst piles of Arabic exercise books, broken desks and pupils’ paintings are 400 live hand grenades, dozens of rifles and rocket-propelled missiles.

Yesterday British Royal Marines swept through the southern Iraqi town, picking up weapons, ammunition and equipment.

It took a trio of four-tonne trucks to carry it all away.

When war broke out in this small, squalid town, Ba’ath party officers immediately seized up to 30 schools to house their weapons and family members.

Yesterday the children who used to study there roamed the streets, while Royal Marines patrolled their classrooms and playgrounds.

At Father Firas, text books, posters of Saddam and crayon pictures were cast all over the floor, covered with broken desks and the shattered glass of windows.

On a chalk board no words or names – instead a detailed poster demonstrating how to use a grenade. Meanwhile, the soldiers marched back and forth past a huge mural of Saddam Hussein. It showed him smiling, arm raised in triumph with the slogan Crown of Battles.

Beneath him was painted a river, part brilliant blue, part blood red, with bodies of Marsh Arabs drifting past.

This is the image tiny schoolchildren saw every morning as they went to school.

On a hot, dry day in the litter strewn, stenching streets of Umm Qasr, the men of 42 Commando Royal Marines covered the whole town.

Their eyes ever keen, they exchanged hellos, waves and sweets with the hundreds of excited children milling around. But yesterday they were also focused on possible snipers lurking in the distance, warnings of booby-trapped houses and sites of ammunition dumps.

They swept the area, finding discarded green uniforms and berets stuffed in corners, army boots left on the street, helmets strewn on floors and weapons hastily dumped in the school playg rounds.

Iraqi civilians ran towards soldiers pointing at dusty pits and large crumbling houses.

Many of the Iraqi officers had fled towards Basra before the Royal Marines secured the town on Tuesday.

Others, the locals said, had discarded their uniforms and stood amongst the watching crowds gathered around them now.

“There is still danger here, ” warned Mohammed, 18, a good English speaker.

“Officers walk around in the crowds during the day dressed as civilians, then gather together and hide in our houses at night.” The public are still hungry, still thirsty, but now they are less scared. Royal Marines, smiling faces on their streets, have won their hearts and minds.

Yesterday, after a long house-by-house, school-by-school search, five clean-cut men dressed in tracksuits and jumpers decided they had had enough.

Apprehensively they approached a group of Marines and admitted they were officers – they were arrested as prisoners of war.

In 12 hours there was only one voice of dissent. As a crowd gathered around a mother crying to see her children return home from Basra, a man stepped forward and cried out.

“Go home, go home, ” he shouted.”Saddam will beat you. British, Americans, you will lose.

You will not have one inch of Iraq, because we are so strong.” People looked at him and laughed. “He is crazy – a madman, ” they said. “Saddam will lose.”