As the first aid convoys rolled into southern Iraq on Wednesday, a cheer went up from several hundred Safwan villagers who grabbed hold of latches, jumped on running boards and banged the sides of 18-wheeler trucks.
But even before the drivers opened their doors, several dozen of the assembled turned the cheers into a song: "We give our blood and hearts to Saddam!" they chanted, dancing, the volume growing as defiance swept the crowd.
When the lumbering trucks swung around and their back doors opened, a near-riot erupted as villagers grabbed, scratched, ripped and tore one another's clothing to get at the prized white boxes filled with bread, cheese, juice packets and chicken. Banners taped to the boxes -- announcing them as gifts from the Kuwait Red Crescent Society -- followed the aid packages onto the muddy ground.
"They're purposely trying to humiliate us and make us look like animals," Nasser Shami, 27, a history student, said as he watched the scrum, refusing to participate. "They brought reporters here to humiliate us before the world and make us look like animals. At least we had our pride before."
After days of delay due to unexpectedly heavy fighting, sandstorms and a mined harbor, aid from the U.S. and its coalition partners finally began to flow into southern Iraq, reaching Safwan and the port of Umm al Qasr. Kuwait sent in five trucks, and the U.S. dispatched seven. But in Safwan at least, the initial effort to ease suffering and build bridges to the Iraqi people appeared to backfire.
Many in this village were particularly galled by the origin of the estimated 20,000 meals. Many Iraqis are deeply resentful of Kuwait, which they see as the only Arab neighbor willing to play host to invading U.S. and British troops. They also accuse the tiny, rich country of having instigated the 1991 Persian Gulf War by angling its oil wells across the border to steal from Iraqi reserves.
Kuwait Red Crescent Society workers said the aid distribution process was intended to be orderly and not humiliating to Iraqis. "We can't control them," said Hani Jazzaf, a Red Crescent official. "We asked them many times to make lines, but they don't."
Instead, a rough, survival-of-the-fittest order developed within minutes. Strong young men dominated the area closest to the trucks' doors, while old women and young children stayed on the periphery looking for items that might have fallen unnoticed.
"I want a box, but I'm too afraid," said 11-year-old Yusef Farez.
Nearby, well-built Ahmed Ali Hussein, 25, guarded 10 boxes he and his friends had snagged. "This isn't enough," Hussein said. "If we were better organized, we would have gotten more."
According to the United Nations, 60% of Iraq's 24 million people are dependent on aid. Safwan villagers said they needed the meals -- whose arrival had been rumored since fighting began last week -- even as they criticized the aid's source, its delayed delivery and the world's failure to address many concerns. Safwan's electricity is out, water supplies are drying up, a medical system is nonexistent and civilian casualties are rising.
"We hear they're supposed to set up a hospital, but there's been no help," said Ali Hussein, 20 and unemployed.
Student Mustafa Kamal, also 20, accused U.S. and British forces of attacking civilians with helicopters for no apparent reason.
Such claims could not be verified, given the chaos of war and reports that Iraqi soldiers have used civilian homes and vehicles for cover. What is eminently clear, however, is the anger and sense of injustice that Kamal and other Iraqis are expressing. "We hate Americans and aren't afraid of the coalition army," he said. "Why are they killing us? We have no weapons. Come at night and see for yourself."
The U.S. and its partners have struggled to find the right balance between military might -- which they need to unseat Saddam Hussein's regime -- and a nuanced hearts-and-minds campaign required to win over the Iraqi people.
"We face an awful dilemma," said Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. diplomat and an expert on Iraq. "To dislodge the forces in the cities, we have to use such force that we will alienate the people we've come to liberate. That's exactly what Saddam is counting on."
Unlike the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when the U.S. and its partners were driving Hussein's forces out of Kuwait, this time Iraqis feel they are fighting for their own turf.
"For many, it's not about Saddam. It's about fighting for their homes and their honor," said David L. Mack, vice president of the Middle East Institute and a former U.S. envoy who served twice in Baghdad.
Several villagers said Wednesday that the region's destroyed electrical system had cut them off from news about the war, although many knew through word of mouth about Hussein's televised speech Monday.
"Everything he said is right," said student Alaa Latif, 21. "Even if we die of hunger, we'll continue to fight. Saddam Hussein is our father. He taught us since we were born."
Suggestions that Iraqis might mount a rebellion farther north in Basra or elsewhere against Hussein's regime drew scoffs. "America thought there would be an uprising against Saddam Hussein, but nothing like that has happened, and it won't," said Adnan Mohamed, 24, a former soldier. "We'll fight."
One villager, however, hinted that members of Hussein's Baath Party had pressured Safwan locals to decry the Americans, British and Kuwaitis even as they accepted the foreign aid.
A U.S. soldier surveying the scene said he thought allied forces were making progress with the Iraqi people. "I believe most people here are putting on a show for Saddam Hussein," Staff Sgt. John Monds said. "I've felt no hostility."
After two hours, the trucks were empty. A ring of villagers remained, trying to figure out how to get their boxes home, while a mangy dog nosed at scraps and at a shoe lost in the melee. A battered pickup truck carried off some of the aid, its wheels lurching through muddy potholes created by Tuesday's sandstorm and rain showers, as people gradually returned to their darkened houses.
Times staff writer Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.
Video of the food distribution at Safwan is available on the Web at: www.latimes.com/safwan.