UMM QASR, Iraq — Flanked by patrol boats and assault helicopters, the British supply ship Sir Galahad docked at the hard-won port of Umm Qasr on Friday, loaded with the first military shipment of relief aid for Iraqi citizens.
Just ahead of it was the British mine-detecting ship HMS Sandown, clearing a route. The security escort only 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 said his teams could not positively confirm whether the objects recently detonated were newly laid mines or leftover ordnance from earlier Iraqi wars but said that the location of several were highly "suspicious."
Working intensively for the past week, the teams have cleared a 200 yard-wide channel along the 40 mile-route from the Persian Gulf into the port of Umm Qasr, which allied forces are hoping to make the center for humanitarian relief distribution.
About 50 British, American and Australian divers, along with two mine-detecting dolphins flown in from the United States, have been scouring the bottom of the port area.
Also Friday, two trucks of Kuwaiti aid arrived in the border town of Safwan. Like an aid distribution on Wednesday, there was a near-riot as about 500 people engulfed the trucks, ripped open the cargo doors and emptied them of the boxes of bottled water, cheese and other food in about 10-15 minutes.
A handful of coalition soldiers did not even try to impose order on the crowd of people, who have been suffering from severe shortages of food and water. They have been drinking muddy water out of ditches and puddles.
Many in the crowd came away with only a small bottle of water, while other tough-looking men wearing keffiyehs hoarded some of the food supplies.
On Wednesday, some of those receiving aid shouted pro- and anti-Saddam slogans.
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.
British Royal Marine commandos finished fully securing the port city three days ago. Coalition forces have said emergency aid to the Iraqi population would be a major priority in coming days.
Iraq's only deep water port, Umm Qasr was heavily used in prewar 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.
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.
Sir Galahad's precious cargo — 100 tons of water and 150 tons of rice, lentils, cooking oil, tomato paste, chick peas, sugar, powdered milk, and tea stacked from floor to ceiling in the ship's hold — is the first massive shipment of aid to reach Iraq. Medical supplies, blankets and ration packs also are aboard.
Its importance was underlined by the military escort. The Kuwait government, which donated the relief supplies, sent two patrol boats to provide added protection while a U.S. Naval patrol boat followed up the rear.
"Further aid supplies from the U.S. and Australia are en route to Iraq and are expected to arrive soon," said British Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram, speaking in London.
Standing in the ship's bridge Friday as U.S. and British assault helicopters hovered alongside, Capt. Roger Robinson-Brown acknowledged Sir Galahad was a potential target.
Throughout the trip, he kept his crew on the ship's highest security alert. Beside mines, the biggest threat to the ship would be fast-moving Iraqi "suicide boats" loaded with explosives, he said.
Coalition forces recently intercepted a barge loaded with anti-ship mines. Dozens more mines were found by U.S. Marines near a warehouse in Umm Qasr. Iraqi pilot boats and fishing dhows partially loaded with mines have also been found tied up to docks in the port town.
"It's a threat that we have to take seriously," he said. "Once they're headed toward you, there's nothing you can do."
Still Robinson-Brown maintains that the risks must be taken in order to get Umm Qasr up and running as an operating port.
"The food aid will feed a medium-sized town for several days or a village for several weeks. But more importantly, we need to show that we've got the port open for business to receive more aid," he said.
The British ship takes its name from Sir Galahad, the hero of King Arthur's round table who was renowned as being the noblest and purest of knights.