Iraqis loot ‘Chemical Ali’s’ vast personal warehouse/
April 11, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq — On the banks of the Tigris River, in an overgrown grove of apple trees and date palms, they came in rickety cars, flatbed trucks and battered taxis Thursday to the home of a man whose very name invoked the crimes of the ousted President Saddam Hussein. And in hours, fearless and ecstatic, they lugged away the symbols of his luxury in a country left deprived.
Out from a warehouse went the scuba gear, racing-car tires and eight-burner stove of Ali Hassan Majeed, Saddam’s cousin who’s blamed for gassing Kurds at a northern Iraqi village in 1988 and was nicknamed “Chemical Ali” by his detractors. Next came the furniture for his uncompleted house, a nearby four-story stone behemoth gilded in onyx with a stone mural of the Tigris at its entrance. There was lawn fertilizer and herbicides, a children’s red plastic car and hand-crafted Indian tables. Kuwaiti records were scattered about, themselves looted after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of its neighbor.
A day after Saddam’s government fell, signaling an end to 35 years of ruthless Baath Party rule, Baghdad descended into lawlessness. Scenes of mayhem were repeated across a city relieved, anxious and vengeful. Hospitals and embassies were looted, as were ministries, government offices, Baath Party headquarters and homes like Majeed’s in the Dora neighborhood. Ambulances were hijacked, as were public buses that ran their routes until the very moment of the government’s collapse. Cars barreled down roads the wrong way in streets deserted by traffic policemen and the party militiamen that once scrutinized them with a steely gaze.
Emotions — euphoria, desperation, vindictiveness and sometimes confusion — surged to the surface. Saddam was gone and so was every vestige of the government and bureaucracy he once represented. In a country whose government tolerated no dissent, the word uttered by many Thursday was fawda, Arabic for disorder and chaos.
Mohammed Abboud, piling a pickup truck 10 feet high with booty, declared: “It’s anarchy!”
Within a day, the task of running the lives of Baghdad’s 5 million people was becoming an urgent question for a victorious U.S. military. In conversation after conversation, residents asked: What about electricity and phones? What would happen to currency, every bill emblazoned with Saddam’s likeness? When would the Americans restore law and order?
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“Saddam Hussein has ended, and he’s gone. But nobody knows what’s ahead. They just don’t know,” said Mustafa Kemal, sitting in the neighborhood of Dora. “We’re like sheep. The shepherd’s gone and everybody goes in their own direction.”
He thought for a moment, then added: “When will the Americans put an end to the looting?”
For now, they showed no sign of doing so. Throughout the day Thursday, thousands hurried to places of plunder in everything from trucks to wooden carts, with an evident sense of payback and spoils. From the General Union of Iraqi Women, in downtown Baghdad, they hauled away chairs, tables and a vase with plastic flowers. From ministries came copiers, lamps, stoves, ceiling fans and overhead projectors — vintage 1970. They emptied a youth center in Zafraniya of soccer balls; state shopping centers turned over tires and car batteries.
Along Karrada Street, boys galloped down the street on horses once grazing at stables in the neighborhood of Jadriya.
Some cars broke down, burdened with lumber, stoves, sinks and food warmers on their hoods. Eight people pushed a broken-down, Brazilian-made Volkswagen down the street past women in black chadors with chairs perched on their heads. Down the road, young boys siphoned gas from cars — some ridden with bullet holes — that were deserted by Baghdad’s vanished defenders.
Most of the targets of looting had a distinctive government stamp. But others seemed to be caught in the moment. The German Embassy was ransacked, its computers, tables and copiers parked in the road. Young men inspected the satellite dish on its roof.
Revenge was on the minds of others. Already picked clean, the ministries of trade, industry and irrigation were set on fire. Slogans of the long repressed Shiite Muslim majority were painted on walls, and portraits of Saddam were defaced across the city — burned, torn or ripped away. One featured the former Iraqi leader with an elongated mustache. Underneath was scrawled “Semper Fi.”
At the Military College, crowds lugged away crates of tomato paste and flour, as a contingent of U.S. troops stood nearby.
“Everything in there belongs to us,” said Kamal Jamal Ibrahim, carting away the food.
At some points in the city, the U.S. military took control. Tanks and armored vehicles were parked outside the Palestine Hotel, and troops sealed off strategic locations — the intelligence headquarters, the oil ministry and electricity installations. Shop owners took matters into their own hands, building concrete walls or welding metal plates across their entrances.
The city was most remarkable for an utter collapse of authority. “There’s no law, but there are no problem either, thank God,” said Mudhar Falaeh, 42. He recounted a traffic accident this morning. A truck plowed into his car from behind at 11 a.m. In the past, such an incident would draw the attention of blue-uniformed police, the very encounter a source of trepidation. On Thursday, he said, there were no police, and there was no hassle. “I didn’t do anything,” he said. “I took a look, and I said, ‘God be with you.’ “
But the mood was darker at Senek Bridge, which spans the Tigris toward the Information Ministry. Early Thursday afternoon, the overpass was blocked by American vehicles, planning to remove the wreckage of a jeep, minibus and car. They were charred, with at least five bodies burned beyond recognition wedged in their seats, floor and underneath the wheels, graced by flies. Suddenly, to angry shouts, Khalil Abu Sheikh, a slightly overweight man with unshaven stubble and a look of fear on his face, came running down the road. Several men followed. Abu Sheikh jumped the barbed wire and pleaded with the U.S. soldiers on his knees. The men who had been chasing him stopped their pursuit, hovering at the edge of the barrier, and insisting the soldiers turn him over.
“We have to have our revenge,” shouted Nizar Ali Mohammed, one of the pursuers. Mohammed showed his scars to bystanders: two bullet holes in his back and welts on his stomach, he said, left by Abu Sheikh, a Baath Party official. In October, he captured Mohammed, who had deserted the army. He informed on him, called into question his Iraqi citizenship by insisting Mohammed’s mother was Iranian, then got him jailed.
“This man hurt many more people, not just me,” Mohammed shouted.
The soldiers looked perplexed, not understanding Arabic. But when the crowd shouted that Abu Sheikh belonged to the “Fedayeen Saddam,” the soldiers recognized the word for Saddam’s loyal paramilitary fighters, and they acted. They searched Abu Sheikh, put him on the ground, then handcuffed him.
“The situation is so unstable,” said Saleh Hamad, 70, playing backgammon at Zakho Caf in a nearby neighborhood.
Like others, the looting unnerved him, and the chaos unsettled him. He wanted the Americans to bring a new government within a week — and then leave Iraq in a few months. He wanted to know when 12 years of U.N. sanctions would be lifted and when a new currency would arrive. Electricity must be turned on, he said, and water — its supplies intermittent — should be restored. “God willing, there will be a new government — nationalist and democratic — that can take care of the situation,” he said.
His 70 years gave him perspective, and he said he was still afraid. While many indulged their newfound freedoms, Hassan hesitated to use Saddam’s name. To him and others, it was still “the president” or, more often, simply “him.” They referred not to the repression of the Baath Party, but “to the story we all know.” They hesitated to say whether Saddam was dead or alive.
“Thirty-five years isn’t a short time,” he said. “Even today, the fear remains.”
There was little of that fear at the home of Majeed, who was the target of a manhunt by U.S. officials during the war and may have been killed in an attack in Basra last weekend. In room after room of a warehouse the size of a football field, crowds rummaged through everything from light fixtures and vases to chess boards and a water ski. A few tokens remained. Saddam’s portraits were scattered, trampled or discarded. Medals bearing his image and a promise of “unity, freedom and socialism” were exchanged as mementos. A clock portraying a seated Saddam at work was handed to a passer-by.
“This is a gift from me to you,” one of the looters said, with a grin.
“We don’t have anything in our houses, no refrigerators, no televisions. Is it thievery when you’re hungry?” said Falaeh, who carted away a small imported lamp. “Look at the riches and look at how people have lived for 35 years.”
As they rummaged through his possessions large and small, a veil of secrecy seemed to be lifted from a figure who crushed Shiite uprisings after the 1991 Gulf War, razed hundreds, perhaps thousands of Kurdish villages and served as governor of an occupied Kuwait. In his boxes were the trivialities of a lesser-than-life man, with a hint of banality. Videotapes of “Les Miserables,” “Lethal Weapon II” and “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” were scattered among portraits of Saddam. A stack of pictures showed a man at once indulgent and self-absorbed. In one, he festively danced as a crowd of tribal elders looked on somberly.
“Everything here is for one person,” Falaeh said, looking out across the warehouse with disbelief. “This house, these rooms for one person. Ali Hassan Majeed. Chemical Ali. All of this was his property. Now the people will take it to their homes.”