Capital applauds and resents troops

Some residents welcome and help soldiers, while others shoot or scold

War In Iraq

April 13, 2003|By Todd Richissin and John Murphy | Todd Richissin and John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The sights, sounds and smells of what had been Saddam Hussein's capital converged yesterday toward one inescapable conclusion - while the war may be closer to an end, the fight for peace is likely to take long and dangerous work.

Baghdad yesterday was a city of two distinctive populations, at least, not separated by borders but intermingled, sharing the same land while differing starkly in temperament, mood, their ability to maintain hope and the degree of their willingness to accept the presence of the American military, which has established camps at intersections all over town.

While some in Baghdad continued to flip their thumbs upward to U.S. soldiers in support, scattered others continued shooting at them. Substantial numbers more took advantage of their new freedom from Hussein to loot businesses, government offices and private homes.

Parts of the city that had been declared under coalition control were afire yesterday, with smoke twisting toward the clouds, obscuring the domes and towers that form Baghdad's skyline.

The smoke came after U.S. tanks blasted sites in response to small-arms fire in the center of the city, outside the Palestine Hotel, probably the most secure area in Baghdad. Throughout the day and into the night, single shots and sometimes the rapid fire of machine guns could be heard from a distance, and sometimes from no real distance at all, a sign that snipers are still firing away even near the most fortified of coalition positions.

Occasionally, large explosions followed the rifle shots. When U.S. Marines guarding the hotel were fired at, tanks responded with blasts from across the Tigris River, rattling windows in the Palestine and in the Sheraton across the street.

In residential and business districts, looting continued, though soldiers gave varying accounts of whether the disorder that has taken over parts of Baghdad was more serious yesterday than in recent days.

Whatever the answer, few businesses in the center of the city have dared to open, and it seemed clear that many Iraqis were becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of services, public and private, caused by the lawlessness. Some people have snapped the white flags of surrender from their cars - and from the cars of others. To combat the looting, many residents have taken matters into their own hands.

Iraqis armed with Kalashnikovs stood at random intersections, threatening anybody they deemed a possible looter. U.S. soldiers at military checkpoints fortified with tanks faced increasingly angry crowds, who pressed against them yesterday and yelled anti-American insults their way, frustrated by a lack of water, electricity and order.

"They say things you can't put in a newspaper, but the end of it is they either want us out or this place safe," said Pvt. Coby Lee, 18, as several hundred Iraqis pressed toward a barricade near a toppled statue of Hussein. "It's like we're the new Saddam. For some of them, anyway."

At the Iraqi Museum yesterday, gunmen pointed weapons at journalists who were there to document the looting of some of the world's most precious archaeological finds, suspecting them of wanting souvenirs themselves. Statues in the building were destroyed, gold and silver stolen.

Traveling through Baghdad is difficult because of the Army checkpoints and because cars, buses and tanks - burned, shattered and twisted - block many roads. And traveling is dangerous because of the snipers, who do not seem to rest.

The cars and trucks of several journalists entering the city have been fired upon, with some vehicles hit. Robbers have surrounded and smashed the windows of others, trying to snatch gear and supplies.

The looting is the most visible sign that the bureaucracy that ran Baghdad collapsed with Hussein's regime. U.S. officials had hoped that once the coalition took over large parts of the country, government workers would return to their offices. That has not happened in much of Iraq and certainly not in Baghdad.

The same police force that helped oppress Iraqis under Hussein also kept order in Baghdad, but it has been absent since the Americans arrived. A police official said yesterday that the force may be back to work today, perhaps tomorrow, and work with U.S. Marines to restore order.

The Iraq Red Crescent has been unable to get supplies in from Jordan, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia because of the city's danger. They and other relief agencies are weeks from entering in substantial numbers.

But amid all the chaos in Baghdad, pockets of order and hope could still be found over the past couple of days.

In northern Baghdad, a candy factory owner on Highway 2 had guarded his factory night and day from looters since the war began, but finally saw good news on the horizon: the Marines.

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