In Mosul, U.S. troops wonder what's next

Mosques, vigilantes grappling for control amid security vacuum

War in Iraq

April 14, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSUL, Iraq -- The American soldier with a Southern drawl leaned on the hood of his Humvee yesterday, peered along the barrel of his automatic rifle and waited for something else to go wrong.

A few minutes earlier, several Iraqis had strolled to a corner across the small square, where at least five roads meet near the city center. However hopeless their cause, they sprayed bullets at a unit of the 173rd Airborne Brigade parked near Jumri Hospital, in a gloomy neighborhood of commercial buildings.

The paratroopers returned fire, then sprinted after the gunmen. The soldier with the twang was left alone to guard the Humvee. The sun-baked metal burned like an iron through his shirtsleeves. Then he faced the ominous silence of the square.

For an American soldier, fighting a war in northern Iraq can feel pretty lonely.

U.S. forces won initial control of this region on the cheap -- with relatively few troops and few tanks. But these victories, heavily dependent on Special Forces and air power, created a nightmare for some civilians.

Mosul fell almost without fighting, then instantly disintegrated into an orgy of looting, arson and score-settling that trashed the city and claimed an estimated 100 lives. It was a replay of the fall of Kirkuk earlier in the week, only far more violent.

In each case, there weren't enough American troops deployed to take on the looters. The relatively few soldiers who were here appeared overextended to the point that they have been forced to keep civilians at arms length, creating a damaging first impression for many Iraqis.

American forces began regular patrols here yesterday, and the large-scale looting and thuggery that marked this city's first days of liberation were over. But the Americans are still spread far too thinly, Iraqis say. And they fear that without a neutral force patrolling the streets, the city could slide back into civil disorder.

It could also be perilous for the soldiers. Americans are still being shot at with disconcerting frequency. Asked yesterday whether it was more peaceful than Saturday, an American soldier responded sarcastically, "Was it ever quiet here?"

Wires and all

Meanwhile, Mosul's services remained crippled by the aftermath of its liberation. Many homes had no electricity or telephones. Almost all the stores were locked shut. Buses were running, but their routes were blocked by street barricades thrown up during the unrest.

Mishan Jibori, an Iraqi recently returned from exile, has responsibility for restoring electricity, water, sanitation and security to Mosul. Yesterday, he greeted visitors on the landscaped lawn in front of a modern government building, because the offices had been emptied.

"The people took everything," he apologized, "including the wires."

While Jibori was upbeat about restoring most vital city services, he acknowledged that security "wasn't 100 percent."

Most of the looted buildings were government ministries that enforced the will of President Saddam Hussein's government. But looters also ransacked hospitals, the university library, banks, public schools and a World Food Program warehouse. People said their cars and trucks were hijacked. One man said his motorcycle was stolen at gunpoint at a stoplight.

About 90 percent of Mosul's police force has not shown up for work since the regime's collapse, said Capt. Ghizi Faisal, who until a few days ago worked in the driver's license division. His every word was monitored by a government minder.

In meetings over the weekend, Faisal said, the Americans seemed leery of letting armed men once loyal to Hussein patrol the streets.

"They were afraid of us," he said incredulously. "They thought we police would kill them or harm them. We told them we are friends."

As he spoke, there was a gunshot nearby.

"Please don't be scared," he said. "Some kids stole these guns and are playing with them. Now we are trying to take them away."

With so few policemen on the street in this city, the third-largest in Iraq, it is hard to determine who is in control.

Kurdish pesh merga fighters held the governor's palace in central Mosul, the Nineveh Bridge over the Tigris River and a handful of strategic intersections. But city residents blame the Kurdish outsiders for much of the looting, and many had been withdrawn by yesterday afternoon.

American soldiers were parked at hospitals and along major roads in outlying neighborhoods. But their deployment seemed aimed more at advertising their muscular presence than policing the city.

So people have taken matters in their own hands. Men with Kalashnikov rifles or lengths of pipe stand guard at makeshift checkpoints, scattered every few blocks throughout the city.

At some checkpoints, the vigilantes included young men wearing the white caps of religious students. Many of the checkpoints are associated with committees organized by local mosques.

"People are controlling their own neighborhoods," Jibori explained.

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