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Complex found bulging with food in hungry city

Distribution center was used by U.N. oil-for-food program

From Mike Boettcher

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After days of fierce fighting, British troops enter the outskirts of Basra.
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BASRA, Iraq (CNN) -- A giant food distribution complex seized Wednesday by U.S. and British forces in this city grappling with hunger contained massive amounts of food.

A walk through only about 20 percent of the warehouses in the complex revealed that tens of thousands of tons of supplies -- including huge quantities of baby milk -- were being stored in Iraq's second-largest city, which has been wracked by a food shortage.

There are vast amounts of food staples, tea, sugar, tires, car batteries and sewing machines in the warehouses.

Also found were large quantities of cash, weapons and documents relating to the food-distribution system. Coalition officials hope the documents will help them smooth out the distribution process.

A small force of Iraqis tried Wednesday night without success to retake the complex, which had been used by the U.N. oil-for-food program.

Iraq's second-largest city was controlled by Iraqis until Wednesday. Parts of it remained in contention Thursday. Six or seven volleys of rockets targeted armored positions Wednesday night in the part of the city still held by Iraqis.

British troops, with the support of American special operations forces, have been pushing steadily into the city in a slow and methodical process.

Although Iraqi paramilitary fighters were putting up fierce resistance, the suburbs and parts of the city appeared to be in coalition control.

British forces late Wednesday and Thursday bombarded Iraqi forces around Basra with long-range artillery. A British military spokesman said the situation around Basra was "stabilizing by the day." (Full story)

As we drove through a suburb Thursday, a few Iraqis waved, but most appeared neutral. On the other hand, we saw no glares of hatred, either.

Many people in Basra recall the failure of the United States to follow through on implied promises of military support to an uprising by Shia Muslims crushed by President Saddam Hussein. Thousands were killed by Saddam after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Meanwhile, coalition forces were trying to determine the needs of Basra's residents and then to meet them. Medical supplies and water headed the list.

CNN Correspondent Mike Boettcher is with U.S. special operations forces in southern Iraq.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This report was written in accordance with Pentagon ground rules allowing so-called embedded reporting, in which journalists join deployed troops. Among the rules accepted by all participating news organizations is an agreement not to disclose sensitive operational details.

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