Iraqis loot as British push into Basra

Baath Party officials, Iraqi military flee city

residents cheer invaders

War in Iraq

April 07, 2003|By Laurie Goering and Michael Martinez | Laurie Goering and Michael Martinez,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BASRA, Iraq - Hundreds of British troops and dozens of tanks and armored vehicles pushed into the center of Basra yesterday, sending Iraqi military and Baath Party officials fleeing but also setting off a looting spree in the newly lawless city.

After bombarding southern Iraq's largest city for much of the 17-day war, the British army met little resistance in taking "large parts" of Basra from Saddam Hussein's forces, who apparently "melted away" or fled north, officers said.

If Basra falls now, as seems probable, it will be a severe blow to the Hussein regime.

Beside the main road into this city of 1.3 million, some residents cheered. Others rode the highway out of town - many of them looters stealing anything they could tow, and some Baath officials attempting to sneak away.

A line of tanks and armored troop carriers reached Baghdad Street, near the city's center, initially prompting panicked residents to flee. But by evening, many were headed home again.

"It's finished," said Kalaf Hassan, a butcher in the city. "Now it's safe."

British commanders, careful to avoid house-to-house fighting that might bring high casualties, had ordered a series of probes during the past two weeks to identify enemy positions. Yesterday's attack began as a similar probe, but when British forces encountered light resistance, they decided to move in more forcefully, officers said.

In securing the southern half of Basra yesterday afternoon, no allied casualties were reported, and the British said they were expecting the entire city to fall in the next day or so.

The attack began yesterday morning when helicopters swept over the city, attacking a Baath Party headquarters and parts of the north end of the city, residents said.

On the ground, soldiers seized a military hospital in the center of Basra and surrounded a group of Baath leaders in a government house, according to an Iraqi army soldier who deserted his unit yesterday morning in the face of the British push.

"They have four big men of the government surrounded," said Muhamed Hussein, 25, as he fled past an allied checkpoint out of the city. "I saw it just now as I was trying to get out."

Trying to escape

Eyewitnesses said Baath Party officials and Iraqi militia members were throwing off uniforms and trying to escape on foot and bicycle. Some Iraqi fighters in civilian clothes shot Kalashnikov rifles at residents trying to flee the city, Hussein said.

Most Baath Party officials had vanished. And residents insisted that foreign fighters brought in to back the Iraqis, including Syrians, had fled their positions.

"There's nothing left of the soldiers or the Baath now," said one man who declined to give his name. "They've changed clothes and run away."

Families escaping Basra said looters had taken to the streets as Iraqi forces fled, breaking into a supermarket and other shops. Trucks headed out of the city in the afternoon carried groups of young men atop piles of new truck tires still in their wrapping.

Other trucks emerged from the city laden with water pipes, air conditioners and auto parts. One man on a tractor was seen leaving the city several times - with a different car in tow each time.

"Everyone is stealing everything they can find. People are destroying the city," said Ali Mohammed, an Arabic language student at Basra University. He said looters had broken into the university and were carting away classroom contents.

"How will we go to school now?" he asked. "The UK soldiers are the ones attacking, but it is the people who are destroying the city.

"This war needs to get over soon."

A well-dressed man who stopped along the road out of town complained bitterly that Iraqi religious leaders needed to speak out on television and radio and appeal for calm and a stop to looting in Basra.

"I can't believe what's happening in this city," he said.

In the back of his old white pickup, however, sat two window air-conditioning units and a copy machine. Asked where they had come from, he shrugged.

"My family will eat from these machines," he confessed.

Prison break

As allied helicopters swept low over central Basra, the sound of low explosions echoed in the distance. Cars bearing Iraqi government license plates were among those rushing out of the city. Many passed with hands protruding from the windows, waving pieces of white fabric.

Travelers leaving the city said residents had broken into the main prison and freed everyone behind bars.

Along the highway into the heart of Basra, trucks and streetlights lay upended beside bomb craters.

Unlike the lush roadside marshes filled with songbirds on the outskirts of Basra, the city's interior contained long stretches of lifeless lots where nothing grew in black pools of oil or stagnant water. Outside one factory, an oil fire apparently set by Iraqi militia to screen their firing positions drenched the air with filth.

But for the first time since the war began, residents began cheering and giving thumbs-up signs. Hussein's enforcers had battered and punished those who publicly supported the invading U.S. and British forces, but that atmosphere largely vanished yesterday.

"Very good, Mr. Bush!" said a man driving his wife and children in an orange-and-white cab converted into a family vehicle.

Laurie Goering and Michael Martinez write for the Chicago Tribune.

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