Seeking stability, coalition and Iraqis are cooperating — tentatively
April 14, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq — Manning roadblocks, Sgt. Steven Christopher found himself picking up Arabic phrases he’d never heard but suddenly needed: “You are a thief. Do you think I am stupid? If you steal, we can shoot you.”
Sporadic but tough measures by Marines, along with checkpoints and vigilante groups thrown together by Iraqis, combined Sunday to curb looters who have gutted parts of Baghdad, shut down commerce and pilfered priceless art from millenniums of human history.
From Baghdad south to Basra, coalition forces are starting to work with local people to reclaim Iraqi towns from the chaos that followed a war now all but won.
Still, fighting was not over in the capital. Late Sunday, Marines outside Baghdad’s Palestine Hotel — where many international journalists are staying — engaged in a heavy battle with gunmen who fired on them. Marines were seen taking away at least one man, but firing and the hunt for the gunmen went through the night, with flares in the sky lighting up the area.
During the day, smoke from the Ministry of Trade, the Rashid Theater of Fine Arts, offices and apartment buildings was vivid testament that looting and arson continued. Robbery seemed to have eased, probably because the choicest and easiest booty was gone.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with these toilets,” Christopher mused, M-16 in hand, as he surveyed the bathroom fixtures and a loudspeaker confiscated from a pickup truck driven by suspected looters.
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On Sunday, Christopher and the other Marine riflemen and tank crews with him worked a checkpoint leading to the Tamooz Bridge over the Tigris River, stopping suspicious vehicles — chiefly pickups piled high with goods.
Chairs, bookcases, refrigerators and toilets seized by the Marines piled high by the side of the road. Confiscated hot-wired cars and trucks sat parked on a side street awaiting owners with proper papers.
Local men, desperate to see calm and normalcy return, helped the Marines translate and finger the guilty.
“I came here thinking I wouldn’t need any Arabic at all — just ‘Put your hands up’ and ‘Put your weapons down,”‘ Christopher said. “They’ve been teaching me how to talk to the thieves. … Things like, ‘You are lying, I’m not stupid,’ and ‘If you steal, we will kill you.”‘
In other parts of town, no such policing had kicked in.
“We have plans to stop it,” Sgt. Spence Williamford said at a median outside the Information Ministry as a looter passed by pushing an office chair stacked with purloined goods.
“It’s only been a day since we’ve been taking fire,” Williamford answered. “As long as there’s chaos, we’ve got other things to worry about. Right now our first priority is to keep U.S. soldiers alive.”
In Basra, southern Iraq’s largest city, efforts were under way to bring Iraqis into policing.
Iraqi police Capt. Abdul Amir Qasim was back in his green uniform and on the streets again for the first time in weeks. Fearful of coalition retaliation, the 32-year police force veteran had stayed away as looters overran Basra.
“We wanted to protect the city from the pillaging, but I was afraid,” he said. “By the grace of God, I am now ready to go back to work.”
As part of British plans to restore law and order, traffic police were being recalled Sunday to work alongside British troops in conducting joint patrols. The appointment of a local sheik to head a civilian advisory group also will help matters, Qasim said.
Basra has been without running water, electricity or telephone service for nearly two weeks. The police force and civilian administration are nonexistent and, like Baghdad, many government buildings have been picked clean.
“British forces will certainly stay, but we are also empowering locals to take back their city,” said Lt. Col. Mike Riddell-Webster of the Black Watch Regiment.
In Iran, where most people are Shiite Muslims as they are in southern Iraq, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameni, urged Iraqis to end looting and violence, state-run Tehran radio reported. Khamenei said threatening the life of people and plundering their property is “a big sin” under Islam, the radio said.
Baghdad residents credited new U.S. Marine patrols with helping scare looters, who had been at work since Wednesday. Patrols were out in many neighborhoods as the Marines spread out after previously concentrating at key spots.
Joint patrols of U.S. troops and Iraqi police were expected to start in Baghdad as early as Monday.
In the absence of police, some of Baghdad’s people took law and order into their own hands. Entrances to most neighborhoods off main routes were stacked with concrete blocks, burned cars and tree limbs to block looters.
“We fired 500 shots into the air,” said Nagib Stipao, dean of Al-Mansour University’s business school. His protection posse included teachers, department heads and their sons.
While mobs gutted Baghdad’s other schools, Stipao’s band repelled mobs over four nights, scaring off crowds that came with forklifts to aid thievery and blocking back a truck that rammed the gates trying to force entry.
Across the road, defenseless without guards, the World Health Organization’s Baghdad headquarters was gutted. Looters scattered pamplets on hand-washing and teeth-brushing, stole vehicles and burned the building.
At the Rashid Theater, black smoke billowed from the looted interior Sunday. Actor and teacher Fadel Abbas said that U.S. troops, as they had elsewhere, came through the neighborhood breaking open doors while checking for Saddam Hussein’s forces. Looters moved in after the Americans moved on, he said.
At Iraq’s national museum, Donny George, director of research and discoveries for the state board of antiquities, crunched through the broken glass of shattered display cases.
Until looters hit, the cases had held the artifacts of Ur and all civilizations that had made the Tigris and Euphrates Valley their home.
The plunder was planned so well in advance that international journalists were told a day ahead of the time. George suspects at least some of the looters were commissioned to go after specific items.
“It was the leading collection of a … continuous history of mankind. And it’s gone, and it’s lost,” George said.
“If Marines had started before, none of this would have happened. It’s too late. It’s no use. It’s no use.”
Associated Press correspondents Tini Tran and Lourdes Navarro contributed to this report from Basra and Baghdad.