Amid elation, thievery

Baghdad: U.S. soldiers scouring the streets encounter cheers, looting and threats.

War In Iraq

April 12, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGHDAD, Iraq - On a cool breezy day, many in the middle-class Dora neighborhood of south Baghdad searched for the normal where they could. But all anyone had to do was look around to see how abnormal life still was.

Two thick plumes of black smoke rose to the east and west, the work of Apache attack helicopters taking out select targets. Inside the city and out, looters carted off everything from propane tanks to typewriters, and especially bathtubs.

And on the street, several hundred soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division made their first appearance in the capital, ordered to seek out weapons caches and thwart guerrilla fighters who may be plotting suicide attacks.

The mood changed from street to street, from good cheer to ugly threats. In Dora, a man named Adel walked down a side street holding a small suitcase in either hand, bringing his 9-year-old daughter home from a refuge in the countryside. In the center of the city, ill-tempered looters surrounded a caravan of journalists arriving from Jordan, shooting at their vehicles, breaking car windows and spitting at them, determined to steal whatever the reporters had. Only the appearance of an American tank saved the convoy.

Fearful of the violent looters, some citizens in the center of the city began to set up roadblocks on their streets with bricks, branches and whatever they could find. In some areas, men with Kalashnikovs or butcher knives patrolled their neighborhoods.

The man named Adel, for one, thought he was safe at last. The stocky government bureaucrat walked toward his home, bringing his 9-year-old daughter Safa back from an uncle's home outside the city.

Adel, who works in the Ministry of Health, was still too afraid to give his last name, but to him it looked as if the war was over and the hope, at least, of peace lay ahead.

"The coming days," he said, "will prove if this situation is OK or no."

While U.S. forces have said the Iraqi military no longer controls any part of Baghdad, that does not mean every area is under U.S. control. The 3rd Infantry Division has secured Highway 8, for example, but not areas to the east.

That is where the 101st went yesterday.

"This is uncharted territory for us," said Lt. Col. Ed Palekas as his unit, the 3rd Battalion of the 327th Infantry Regiment, set off yesterday morning from an airfield in Iskandariyah 30 miles away.

Some nervous soldiers say they are waving at the welcoming crowds with one hand and using the other hand to position their trigger finger, just in case.

The 80-vehicle convoy traveled slowly up the four-lane Highway 8, passing charred remnants of destroyed Iraqi T-72 tanks. They also saw a ruined U.S. M1-Abrams tank, victim of the sort of suicide truck bomber they now fear.

Fleeing and looting

As the Army moved north, many Iraqis went south. They traveled in all manner of vehicle, from horse-drawn cart to late-model BMW, many waving a white towel or shirt out the window to signal their friendly intentions. Sometimes it was impossible to tell who was fleeing the chaos and who was carting off a rooftop full of loot.

Bathtubs seemed particularly popular; at least half a dozen people had them strapped to cars or carts. Two men, pushing their booty in a wheelbarrow, even tried to fence it to the soldiers. "Money for this!" they cried out.

When the convoy stopped at one point, the looters did not. Men and women grabbed tires, typewriters and furniture on the highway's west side, streaming between the stationary Humvees to take their haul to the east side.

The south side of Baghdad is the 101st Airborne's sector, and the 3rd Battalion rolled into Dora after lunch, stopping near Saddam Highway.

Ahmad Hassan, a supervisor at the Ministry of Building and Construction, walked out of his small wooden house wearing a knit shirt and khaki pants to see what was happening. He was relieved to hear he could stay in his house. He would bring back his wife and daughters, 12 and 14, who have been at his wife's father's house 15 miles away, he said.

Though he has no electricity and little water, Hassan has monitored the BBC's Arabic-language service on a battery-powered radio. He knows the war is largely over. The rampant looting disturbs him, though, and tests his hope that calm may be slowly returning to the capital.

"More stealing," he said, shaking his head. "It's continuous. More, more. Why? No government in place." It may end, he said, only "when every store is empty."

At least said Hassan, who is 43, the oppression of the Saddam Hussein regime has ended. "We didn't say anything. If we said to the government any idea from us, they kill us. We didn't say anything."

And if the U.S. forces have achieved this goal, he is deeply saddened by the high toll they have taken: "Many people they killed."

Now he wants freedom and is optimistic, maybe too much so, that democracy can succeed in Iraq despite the absence of a tradition.

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