Chaos in the Capital.
By Peter Beaumont
Amid growing resentment among ordinary Iraqis, American troops stood by yesterday and watched roaming gangs of looters continue their wholesale destruction of Baghdad as civil violence escalated across the city.
By late yesterday afternoon residents in neighbourhoods across Baghdad had turned the city into a series of no-go areas defined by makeshift barricades guarding most side streets as looters set more fires and ransacked yet more buildings.
Reports of vigilante and revenge killings also continued to emerge. On one street corner lay the bloated corpse, covered in a carpet, of a middle-aged man who had been killed three days ago. There were reports of former Ba'ath party fighters being attacked by mobs, and looters being beaten.
Tensions soared just before nightfall when a firefight erupted in central Baghdad with US Marines and Iraqi fighters battling tree-to-tree along the Tigris river. Heavy machine-gun fire and explosions could be heard along the river.
Baghdad was bursting with anti-American feeling yesterday as residents saw their city being stripped by its own citizens. US forces rarely intervened and in some cases even waved treasure-laden men through checkpoints.
The continuing chaos came despite claims yesterday by US and British politicians that reports of it have been exaggerated by the media. Ordinary Iraqis did not appear to agree with their analysis. Looting appeared to have been encouraged by the decision of US forces to reopen two strategic bridges over the Tigris, giving gangs access to new territory in the parliamentary district which had so far survived destruction.
Iraqis demonstrated outside the US Marine headquarters at the Sheraton hotel to express their fury over the lawlessness that has gripped the capital since the arrival of US troops and the fall of Saddam Hussein.
'Coalition forces are responsible. Where is the law?' said Safa Hussein Qasim, 44, a jeweller. 'This is the promise of the United States to Iraq? This is democracy in Baghdad?'
Looters ransacked government buildings, hospitals and schools, along with the National Museum, taking or destroying many of the country's archeological treasures.
A museum worker arrived yesterday to find the administrative offices trashed by looters. The only thing she could salvage was a telephone book-sized volume. She refused to give her name. In tears, she said: 'It is all the fault of the Americans. This is Iraq's civilisation. And it's all gone now.'
The National Museum held artefacts from thousands of years of history in the Tigris-Euphrates basin, widely held to be the site of the world's earliest civilisations. Before the war the museum closed its doors and secretly placed the most precious artefacts in storage, but the metal storeroom doors were smashed and everything was taken.
'This is the property of the nation and the treasure of 7,000 years of civilisation,' said museum employee Ali Mahmoud. 'What does this country think it is doing?'
The renewed attacks took place despite a commitment by US troops in the city to put an end to looting. There were also unconfirmed reports of the possibility of a nightime curfew - banning all movement - being imposed.
Although heavily armed US patrols were more in evidence yesterday, the soldiers, largely US Marines, seemed uninterested in intervening, either to stop the looting or the shooting between rival Iraqis in the city's suburbs.
The worst of the violence has been located in Saddam City, a rundown sprawling area occupied by more than 1.2 million Shia Muslims, long oppressed by Saddam's regime.
But shooting was not confined to Saddam City. Gunfire could be heard across the city yesterday.
Looters swarmed over the Rasheed and Jumhuriya bridges across the Tigris and pushed into several government buildings, including the Planning Ministry, which sits on the edge of the old palace presidential compound on the river's west bank.
Looters were also seen coming out of the Foreign Ministry carrying office furniture, TV sets and air conditioners. Children wheeled out office chairs and rolled them down the street.
US soldiers stood by at the presidential compound, as looters some 400 yards away hauled bookshelves, computers and sofas from the Planning Ministry. Bands of men with tools plundered cars nearby for wheels or other parts.
'The Americans have disappointed us all. This country will never be operational for at least a year or two,' said Abbas Reta, 51, an engineer and father of five. 'I've seen nothing new since Saddam's fall. All that we have seen is looting. The Americans are responsible. One round from their guns and all the looting would have stopped.'
Nezar Ahmed, an electrical engineer, said: 'We've been wanting to kill Saddam Hussein for 20 years but we couldn't. So we are grateful to the Americans, but they are letting thieves take everything from the Iraqi people. It is their responsibility to maintain security but they let the
thieves do whatever they want.'
In front of the Palestine Hotel, an area thick with US Marines, several dozen Iraqis demanded a new government. 'We want peace,' they chanted in English as Marines looked on from their combat vehicles.
US officials insist the restoration of law and order will become a higher priority. The US State Department said yesterday it was sending 26 police and judicial officers to Iraq, the first component of a team that will eventually number about 1,200.
Challenged about the ineffectiveness of the US intervention on the streets yesterday, one Marine officer told The Observer: 'We are here to fight a war not be policemen.'
That may have to change. 'The army of America is like Genghis Khan,' snapped Fouad Abdullah Ahmed, 49, as US tanks rumbled by without stopping. 'America is not good and Saddam is not good. My people refused Saddam, and they will refuse the Americans.' One young man went further: 'If this continues in Baghdad we'll kill any American or British soldier,' said Rahad Bahman Qasim, 30.
The sound of sporadic gunfire could be heard as the looting continued and night fell.
[Source: The Observer (London), Sunday, April 13, 2003]
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