Amid rubble, Iraq replaces its leaders

Lines for trusted staffers for crucial public services form in Baghdad's streets

War In Iraq

April 13, 2003|By Ian Fisher | Ian Fisher,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The business of staffing a new Iraqi government began literally in front of American tanks yesterday. Job-seekers showed up at a hotel in response to a radio announcement, and a translator near the tanks ordered the men into lines: police to the right, doctors to the left. Marines set up lines for electricians, engineers, sanitation workers.

"We need new police, honest police!" shouted Magdad al-Jaburi, 45, who was seeking to reclaim the job as a police captain he said he lost 10 years ago. "A new government, a democratic government!"

Finding a new top leadership for Iraq is important, but right now there is no one to put out the fires, stop the looters, tend to the sick and wounded or even pick up the trash piling up on the streets of this smoldering city of 5 million people.

"Now we are satisfied that Saddam Hussein has left," said Firas Ibrahim, 30. "But if this situation keeps up, we will all become volunteer fedayeen," referring to Hussein's most loyal militia.

"This situation," he said, "is too much to bear."

Ibrahim was standing in front of the Ministry of Trade in downtown Baghdad, where Hussein's government handed out the food rations that at least 60 percent of Iraqis - including Ibrahim - depended upon. Other ministries provided cheap gasoline, refrigerators, clothing and employment for, by one estimate, a third of Iraqis.

Yesterday, flames poured out of the Ministry of Trade's windows, just one of dozens of government buildings destroyed since the fighting came to Baghdad. Looters, some of them children, hauled out everything of value. Some young people found ammunition inside, a discovery not likely to increase the prospects for order.

Col. John Pomfret, who supervises the supply of ammunition and fuel to about 22,000 U.S. Marines, said yesterday that the military's immediate goal was to restore the city's utilities and civil order.

"We want to bring back a sense of normalcy here," he said.

Pomfret said the military was trying to hire police officers as quickly as possible, and had begun interviewing and screening applicants for any association with Hussein's government. But he said most rank-and-file police officers would probably be accepted.

"We've talked to the local leaders," Pomfret said. "The average police officer was OK. It was the leadership that was corrupt."

He added that U.S. military engineers were working to restore electricity and water to the city, noting that many electrical grids and pumping stations had been vandalized and were in urgent need of repair.

The colonel said the goal was to have the Iraqis lead the way in rebuilding the city, with the Americans providing expertise and materials.

"There is a vacuum right now," he said. "We don't want to be the established government. We don't want to decide. We want to enable. We want to support. There has to be a level of self-determination."

Speaking of Iraqi engineers and professionals, Pomfret said: "We don't want to replace these people; we want to find them. If we take over the hospitals and the electrical grids, then we are running them, not the Iraqis. That's not what we want."

In the meantime, the colonel said, his engineers were busy purifying water and would soon begin distributing it around the city.

"Food is not a problem," he said. "People need pure water, and they need electricity."

As Iraq waits for water, electricity and a new government, some residents have begun policing their neighborhoods. In the Adhamiya district, civilian police officers walked the streets with clubs and chained dogs. At Al Kindi hospital and the Saddam Pediatric Hospitals, neighbors and other volunteers have begun to provide armed protection against looters.

Three days ago, Haider Dauod, 30, who owns a television repair shop, went to Al Kindi, one of Baghdad's best hospitals, to give blood. When the looting began, he said he donned a blue surgical gown and began keeping guard at the front gate with a crowd of others. For the past two nights, they have repelled several attacks by looters.

He said he was angry at his encounters with American soldiers in the neighborhood, mentioning one Marine who he said he had begged to guard the hospital two days ago.

"He told me the same words: He can't protect the hospital," Dauod said. "A big army like the U.S.A. Army can't protect the hospital?"

Pomfret said the Marines were reaching out to local leaders, mainly in the mosques. He said they were focusing on lower-level leaders who were in touch with their neighborhoods. He said the effort entailed the extensive use of Arabic translators, as there was a realization that the Americans should not rely too heavily on Iraqi officials just because they speak English.

"We are trying to take the pulse of the street," he said. "We don't want to rely only on the English-speaking Iraqi leaders, because a lot of them were involved in the regime."

For their part, the Marines say they are under orders not to stop the looting and seem mostly concerned about their own protection, especially from the threat of suicide bombers. The little they say they can do amounts to handing out their own food rations, which they say they have in such bulk in their Humvees that it is a blessing to give it away.

"They don't really ask," said Lance Cpl. John Donathan, 24, of Charlottesville, Va. "We just give it out. And it gives us more room."

While the wide-scale looting has depressed many Iraqis, the looters have stripped clean one of Hussein's most notorious bureaucracies, the intelligence services, with special glee.

"This is the secret police that captured people and tortured them," said one looter, Amar Harbi, 27, a well-spoken chemistry graduate who said he could never afford a computer under Hussein.

Yesterday he drove up in a truck and took off with a few computers - new ones, though damaged slightly by the bombs.

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