Long wait for help is over as 'Sir Galahad' docks with supplies

They had been waiting for days and with each day that passed they were told that maybe the food would be here tomorrow. If not, then perhaps the day after.

Under a picture-perfect blue sky yesterday, the long-overdue first shipload of humanitarian aid docked at Umm Qasr. Its choreographed arrival intended to send a message to the world and the hungry, waiting people of Iraq that Britain and America were making aid an issue. Whether they were successful in convincing either has yet to be seen.

The 'Sir Galahad', a British naval supply ship, docked at around 3.30pm with 232 tons of water and 150 tons of rice, lentils, cooking oil, tomato paste, chick peas, sugar, powdered milk and tea, and medicine. For the people of southern Iraq who have been without fresh water or electricity since this American-led war began 10 days ago its arrival came not a moment too soon.

"This is an historic occasion," said Lt-Col Paul Ash, the commanding officer of the Royal Logistical Corps unit that is operating the old port in Umm Qasr. He explained: "This is emergency assistance and our aim is to hold it secure, then distribute the aid as soon as possible in a controlled and safe manner to the people who need it the most. We need to ensure that supplies are configured so that they have maximum effect; there's no point sending people bags of rice if they have no water to cook with."

Water. Water. Water. You hear the cry everywhere in southern Iraq at the moment – from children banging on the sides of your vehicle desperate for a drink to the crowds of men who gather round every time they see a foreign face. Indeed aid agencies have warned that water and not food is the most important requirement for Iraqi civilians at the moment – a genuine matter of life or death.

Umm Qasr has never had mains water – supplies were trucked in from Basra, about 25 miles away, a source that has stopped since the war started. Allied forces are building a pipeline that will bring water from Kuwait. The supplies on the 'Sir Galahad' will help until then.

Its arrival – led into port by a minesweeper with a helicopter flying overhead – was something the British and American authorities were desperate to beam around the world. And they were equally keen to issue the message to those audiences it felt most appropriate by giving the Arab media preference over Western journalists. "This is a story we are trying to direct to the international media and the regional media," said a senior British officer helping to co-ordinate the event.

The number of journalists invited to witness the event was strictly limited and certain outlets were given first choice. This meant, in particular, the Arab world – al-Jazeera television was given preference over ITN, regional media given preference over British newspapers. That is not surprising. Washington and London have been desperate to see this first shipload arrive and very senior officers have spoken of the intense political pressure they have been under to make sure this day happened.

It has not been simple. Umm Qasr – Iraq's only deep water port – was mined by retreating Iraqi forces and divers. Mine clearance teams from Britain, the US and Australia have been working around the clock to enable the 'Sir Galahad' to come in. Even now, they have cleared only one of 23 possible berths at the dock.

But yesterday there was news that will not have been encouraging for the politicians in Washington and London. Takoma, a 22-year-old Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphin the US Navy was using to find mines around Umm Qasr, has gone missing.

Officers said he had gone off before but only for 24 hours. By last night he had been Awol for two full days. His handler, US Petty Officer Taylor Whitaker, has spent the past two evenings at the dockside with a basket of fish, slapping the water.