Rampant looting across Iraq
BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) -- After enduring more than two weeks of fighting and air strikes, the people of Iraq's second city of Basra face a new threat -- rampant looting.
Thieves armed with AK-47 assault rifles are breaking into homes, shops and ministries, walking away with everything from furniture to kerosene, residents say.
"They are terrorizing our neighborhoods. At night, during the day, they steal everything," said Hussein Akil, standing with an angry crowd on one of Basra's main streets.
"What kind of liberation is this?"
As President Saddam Hussein's rule and the old order crumble under an assault by U.S. and British forces, Basra is not alone.
Reuters correspondents traveling with U.S. forces report similar scenes from across the country, including on the outskirts of the capital Baghdad.
Restoring law and order is turning into one of the biggest challenges for the occupying forces as they try to create a civil administration in Basra and other cities they control.
Gen. Ali Shukri of the Middle East Center at Britain's Oxford University, said U.S. and British forces had to act quickly or risk losing fledgling goodwill for the invasion.
"People are not going to believe the statement that says we're out to build Iraq. Iraq is being destroyed under the eyes of the coalition forces," Shukri told the BBC.
British troops walked into Basra on Monday. The city had been under virtual siege since shortly after the invasion to oust Saddam began on March 20.
They have received a mixed reception from Iraqis, who say anarchy will take hold unless they act to fully restore stability and basic services such as water and electricity.
Iraqis jokingly refer to thieves as Ali Baba, referring to the fable of Ali Baba and the 40 thieves. In Basra, underlying the humor is anger toward the occupying British forces.
"These British soldiers turn a blind eye to all this looting. It is disgraceful," said one truck driver.
As British Challenger tanks held key intersections in central Basra on Tuesday, frustrated residents asked why looters were still able to move freely in the city.
"We need protection from these people. They drive around and they hide guns in their clothes so the British and Americans don't stop them at checkpoints," said Saad, a Basra resident.
Military commanders say they have a war to fight and play down the extent and nature of the looting.
'Letting off steam'
British Air Marshal Brian Burridge on Monday blamed it on widespread anger toward Saddam's regime. "There is a release of pent-up annoyance and hatred against the Baath Party and the Baath regime," he said, predicting the looting would subside.
Group Capt. Al Lockwood, the main spokesman for British forces at Central Command, said many weapons would need to be collected and destroyed in Basra to end law and order problems.
"Imagine the frustration of people after 25 years of repression by an evil regime," he told reporters on Tuesday. "They are only letting off steam, they are only really attacking Baath Party buildings and symbols of the regime."
But correspondents say looting appears indiscriminate.
Small-time looters roam Basra and other cities with wheelbarrows full of stolen goods. Some use donkeys to haul heavy goods across cities as shells land and gunfire crackles.
Looters have cleaned out bombed factories, houses and buildings, taking away industrial equipment, household appliances, and even pillows, mattresses and live chickens.
Reuters correspondent Matthew Green, with U.S. Marines on the outskirts of Baghdad, watched scores of young men make off with home generators and other booty from a factory on Monday.
"They were literally emptying the premises," he said.
Reuters correspondent Sean Maguire, traveling with a unit of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Baghdad, saw residents scurrying through the dusty back streets carrying furniture and other items apparently from deserted official buildings.
An old man stood glowering at the side of the street, haranguing the looters. "Thieves!" he shouted.
At the former Basra appeals court, teenagers were loading wood from the building onto a cart on Tuesday.
Looting is so widespread that many shopkeepers in Basra have closed their businesses for fear of being robbed.
Lockwood said occupying forces had a responsibility to stop looting. "We do have responsibility under the occupying forces act to stop the looting. We expect this behavior to die out quickly. We believe it won't be long before there is peace."
Shukri said reviving the old police force might be the solution. "Even if you have to sift through them and get those who are really professional policemen, who have nothing to do with the old regime, you've got to start," he added.
U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks told a news briefing at Central Command there was often a "temporary vacuum" of control in areas that had just been liberated.
"Law and order will be re-established," he said.
A spokeswoman for British forces at Central Command said British forces had experience of law and order problems in Sierra Leone, the western Balkans and Northern Ireland. "Once you stop the fighting you can start the policing," she said.
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