BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The people of Baghdad's Karadeh neighborhood, fed up with thievery, took the law into their own hands: They grabbed Kalashnikov rifles, set up roadblocks and checked passing cars for stolen goods.
When they found it, they knew what to do. They confiscated the loot -- and beat the culprits.
Even law enforcement was anarchic in Iraq on Friday. Unchecked by American and British forces, some Iraqis looted and burned; their neighbors cowered behind barricaded doors, and pleaded for intervention to restore civic peace to a country still enmeshed in war.
"Tell the Americans to stop the killing and the looting. We can't live like this much longer, with Muslims looting other Muslims," said 41-year-old Jabryah Aziz. "I need to feel safe so I can go and collect my food ration."
American leaders walked a fine line between alienating Iraqis with an iron fist and doing too little to stop the chaos. They say their top priority, for now, must be fighting the war. They say the logistics of building new law enforcement agencies are daunting.
Their troops tote extraordinarily powerful weaponry in the streets of Iraqi cities, but they hew to rules that they must avoid deadly force against looters.
And they insist that the current chaos is a phase that will pass. In southern Iraq, where coalition forces have been in place for weeks, looting has eased, noted Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"I think what you're seeing is on the way to freedom, the reaction of the people to oppression," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insisted that "we do feel an obligation to assist in providing security, and coalition forces are doing that. Where they see looting, they are stopping it."
But you could walk down streets in Baghdad and see Iraqis carrying televisions, air conditioners, tools, office furniture, potted flowers -- and waving to American soldiers who stood by impassively.
"We'll maintain security as well as we can, but we are not a police force," said Col. Steve Hummer, commanding officer of the 7th Marines.
In Mosul, hospitals reported their ambulances had been stolen at gunpoint, and townspeople plundered the central bank, grabbing wads of money and tossing bills in the air.
There, too, residents took up arms to stop the looting -- leaving mosques after dusk prayers and setting up checkpoints, using clubs and small arms to persuade thieves to give up their booty, according to Al-Jazeera television.
Army Maj. Rumi Nielson-Green, a spokesman for the Central Command, said the military can draw on military police and other troops trained in crowd control. She said troops were being shifted around the battlefield to handle policing efforts.
Special operations forces were sent to Mosul to try to preserve order amid arson, looting and shootings.
Nielson-Green said members of the Army's 4th Infantry Division -- just arriving in Kuwait, after being denied access to Iraq through Turkey -- could be tapped.
Timothy J. Lomperis, a military historian and chairman of the political science department at St. Louis University, said there should have been a "follow on" force dedicated to stabilizing Iraq, immediately succeeding the combat forces.
But like some other military experts, he believes planners did not commit enough troops to the war. Massive air support and a rapid advance made up for that shortcoming, he said.
"Suddenly, you have to have people doing police work on the ground," said Lomperis, who served two tours as an intelligence officer in Vietnam. "And you can't have A-10 Warthogs dealing with looters."
Said David R. Segal, director of the Center for Military Organization at the University of Maryland: "I think we did much less clear thinking about what we should do after we declare victory than what we did before we declare victory."
He expects other nations -- perhaps nations that carry less imperial baggage than the United States -- to help police the country until the Iraqis can take over.
The United States can't simply ask the old regime's police to take over. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks of the Central Command said when Americans entered Baghdad, they found that police were using their radios to call for and adjust fire in support of the regime.
Instead, the military aims to nurture new law enforcement groups. According to a reporter for The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer attached to the 82nd Airborne, paratroopers were taken aback Thursday when they were stopped in the town of Diwaniyah by Iraqis with assault rifles.
But they meant the Americans no harm. Their red armbands identified them as members of a "freedom force," enlisted with local sheiks to serve as police. "Return Iraq back to the Iraqi people -- that's our objective," Col. Arnold Bray told the sheiks.
For the moment, aside from these budding efforts and those of vigilantes, the American and British forces were the law in Iraq. Marines were patrolling hospitals in Baghdad to prevent them from being stripped of their vital supplies, and in Mosul, U.S. forces declared a curfew from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
And rules to avoid using deadly force to maintain order do not preclude the use of such force entirely.
Brooks said five Iraqis were engaged by British forces on Friday as they tried to rob a bank in Basra. Warned to stop, they did not -- and were shot by the British.
"Looting went down a lot in Basra," Brooks said.