Looting hinders U.S. efforts to aid Iraq

Destructive spree blocks attempts to find arms, Hussein and his aides

War In Iraq

April 18, 2003|By Bob Drogin and Warren Vieth | Bob Drogin and Warren Vieth,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - The spree of looting and destruction across Iraq is hampering Bush administration efforts to revive the country's economy, to search for chemical and biological weapons, and to hunt for Saddam Hussein and his top lieutenants, U.S. officials said yesterday.

They said that neither the Pentagon nor the U.S. intelligence community had anticipated or planned for the scale and ferocity of the post-war rampage, which appears to have caused far more damage in some areas than the war.

Officials have only begun to gauge the effects. But as an example, the looting of many oil production facilities, field offices and warehouses is expected to delay efforts to restore the flow of crude oil that provides virtually all of Iraq's revenue, government and industry experts said.

Similarly, the removal or destruction of sensitive documents from national and regional offices of Iraq's spy services and secret police agencies has complicated efforts to hunt down members of Hussein's high command.

"A lot of times, the documents have been looted or removed before we get there," said an intelligence official at the Pentagon, which is responsible for collecting and analyzing the regime's records. "We're seeing it across the board.

"At the same time we're looking for material, you have Iraqis looking for records about family members," the official added. "And you have a lot of people who don't want their names found in the files. So they're removing or burning the stuff."

In other cases, officials from the ousted regime apparently removed incriminating records before U.S. forces arrived. Nearly every file was taken from the Baghdad headquarters of the Mukhabarat, Iraq's main internal security service, for example. Most furniture and other equipment was left untouched, so random looters are not suspected.

"The whole place had been scrubbed," said another U.S. intelligence official. "The headquarters had been emptied."

Some files and sophisticated equipment also have been taken from the Tuwaitha nuclear research complex outside Baghdad, from an ammunition manufacturing facility near Karbala and from several other institutions where U.S. officials suspect forbidden weapons might have been produced or stored.

Citing the removal of documents and other apparent efforts by Hussein's regime to hide or destroy evidence, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld openly cast doubt yesterday on the likelihood that special U.S. teams searching suspect sites in Iraq will find any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

"I don't think we'll discover anything, myself," Rumsfeld told a "town hall" meeting at the Pentagon. "I think what will happen is we'll discover people who will tell us where to go find it."

One U.S. official said the Pentagon was caught off-guard because of its recent experience in Afghanistan. "There wasn't much looting there," the official said. "Frankly, there wasn't that much to steal."

Headlines have understandably focused on the theft and destruction of priceless antiquities in Baghdad's National Museum, the torching of the Koranic library and the national archives, and the wholesale ransacking of hospitals, banks, embassies, hotels, offices and homes. In many cases, U.S. troops did nothing to intervene, though patrols have been stepped up in recent days.

But looting also took place in Iraq's oil fields, which Rumsfeld has said were under military control.

The mayhem in the oil fields raises questions about an apparent decision by U.S. military officials to provide tight security at wellheads and refineries but to let vandals ransack other areas at will.

Damage reports from the oil fields are anecdotal, and the full extent of damage and theft remains undetermined. But recent news reports from Iraq's northern oil fields indicate that vandals have emptied warehouses of spare parts, stolen computers containing geologic and production data, ransacked offices where field records were kept, and driven away in every state oil company car, truck and bulldozer they could commandeer.

"It's not the wells. It's the computers, the trucks, the tools," said energy economist Philip K. Verleger Jr. of the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based research center.

Bob Drogin and Warren Vieth write for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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