Free of Hussein, Looters Rule Basra
British units in the southern city face little resistance as residents pillage and plunder on one of their first days of life without the dictator.
By Mark Magnier
Times Staff Writer
Published April 8, 2003
BASRA, Iraq -- Crowds looted buildings and mobbed British tank units as residents of Iraq's second-largest city grew more confident Monday that Saddam Hussein's repressive rule was really over.
British paratroopers entered Basra on foot, facing an occasional rattle of machine-gun fire but otherwise little resistance. Four U.S. Cobra helicopters swooped overhead as the troops advanced toward Algeria Square in the heart of the battered, canal-laced city.
Iraqi soldiers and Fedayeen Saddam militia forces had seemingly melted into the civilian community or had fled.
On one of their first days without the heavy hand of Hussein's regime, residents looted frantically. Boys on bicycles, teenagers on donkey carts and adults in vehicles swept through the city and broke locks, smashed glass, pillaged and burned or carted off ceiling fans, floodlights, roofing materials and school buses.
At the portside Basra Sheraton, mostly young men ran off with carpets, stationery, towels, mattresses and a grand piano as a fire raged outside the hotel.
In rooms and suites, intruders carefully unscrewed light bulbs ringing bathroom vanity tables before they smashed mirrors with clubs. Others tossed doors and bed frames from three-story windows to their cohorts below.
The chaos in Basra served as a warning of what could happen in the much larger capital, Baghdad, when a quarter-century of dictatorship ends and central authority teeters.
Those not engaged in the day's free-for-all in Basra blamed the British and Americans for destroying the old order without creating a replacement. British forces said they were busy eliminating the last pockets of resistance.
Just outside the University of Basra, along one of the bogs and earthworks that ring the campus, seven bodies clad in military or civilian clothes lay sprawled in the dirt where they had fallen after a gun battle.
The two bodies closest to the road were clad in blue jeans and covered by cheap brown- and blue-striped blankets. Beside them in the dirt was a broken rocket-propelled grenade launcher, green canisters of ammunition, army-issue canteens and a vest.
British soldiers crouched in defensive positions a few yards away. Farther down the berm, crowds stared at more corpses.
"What is Saddam Hussein doing for them now?" crowed one onlooker.
As people gathered to gawk, Red Crescent volunteers arrived in an ambulance and a white pickup truck to take away the bodies. Six workers carried a bloodied green stretcher to the edge of a bog, where they maneuvered a corpse onto the canvas by grabbing its stained undershirt.
A mile farther into Basra, Capt. Sarah Shepherd of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment removed her helmet to reveal a smile and a head of blond hair. The jaws of a crowd of mostly male onlookers dropped at the sight of a female soldier.
"I've gotten a couple offers of marriage," Shepherd said as admirers handed her flowers and asked for autographs. "For them, it's a real novelty."
Behind her, soldiers from her unit guarded the door of a building with an arched entryway that identified it as the "Artist's Theater, Basra Branch." An 8-by-20-foot room in the theater was filled with boxes of plastic explosives, grenades, dozens of mortar rounds, a machine gun and ammunition.
"We think this is quite an important find," said Capt. Edward Cornes with the Royal Artillery. "These could do us some damage."
Deeper in the theater's recesses, in a room that once housed props and dressing tables, partially melted ice cubes and a half-eaten meal of bread and tomatoes were signs of how quickly fighters had fled.
In the building's living quarters were old clothes, a bed and a musty mattress. Four live rabbits and a chicken rustled in a corner.
"We deduce they would kill a rabbit and eat one a day," Cornes said.
"They've probably gone into another area, or perhaps dissolved back into society."
Despite predictions that old rivalries would flare, there was little evidence of bloodletting between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, ordinary citizens and ruling Baath Party officials or among tribal groups.
"We can pass through the disagreement period between brothers quickly if people can forget what has been done to them in the past," said Hider Agouti, 31, a teacher.
There was, however, plenty of evidence of looting.
"I'm going to sell these," Hammond Alas, 20 and unemployed, said as he maneuvered a handcart on which 13 green-cushioned chairs were precariously balanced.
"I got them from the university's economics and administration department."
Those not engaged in looting mourned the losses.
"If just one tank would protect the university, it would stop all this," said Ali Khasim, a 45-year-old oil service worker. "I'm happy they took the Hussein regime out, but they have to rebuild something to replace it. The chaos is robbing us of money and our legacy, and we'll suffer later."
British troops guarded a few strategic sites in Basra, including hospitals and nearby oil refineries, but they said their first priority was to rid the city of weapons and fighters.
"We're still in a war," said Capt. Richard Clare of the 1st Battalion Light Infantry. "The military left, which ruled by fear, and the militia moved out. There's a vacuum.... We can't protect every building, but we're trying to protect against looters in the return to normalcy."
Across the city, images of Hussein that had dominated every major intersection, government building, hotel, factory, office and military installation as recently as 24 hours ago were being torn down, defaced or shredded. Left behind were partial images of the dictator in various public poses: Arab nationalist, businessman, soldier, devout Muslim and a tough in sunglasses.
At Basra Teaching Hospital, exhausted surgeons who had been working 19 straight days took a break outside.
Civilians hit by gunfire and shrapnel generally start showing up at the hospital within two hours of a major air assault or tank battle, said Dr. Ahmed Galibi.
On the hospital's second floor, a father watched over his son, who had been shot in the head.
A doctor periodically inserted a suction tube in the boy's mouth.
"Please tell the British, if they have someone to save my son, to come here," said Mohsen Kannen.
Doctors have been banding together to guard the hospital against thieves, known locally as "Ali Babbas."
On Monday morning, as seven men tried to steal ambulances and a Land Cruiser, doctors alerted British soldiers. Most of the thieves fled. One, who had taken off in a Land Cruiser, failed to halt when challenged and was shot. Doctors rushed to save his life but could not.
Most of the damage in Basra on Monday seemed the result of looters or small-arms fire, although a few major targets bore the effects of allied bombs.
The central part of the City Hall building, a massive structure designed to embody strength and confidence, had collapsed into a jumble of concrete and steel supports after an allied airstrike last week.
"Everyone's happy they hit this thing," said Latif Mohamed, a 16-year-old student who was looting at the ruins.
"Before the war, the mayor walked around like a tough guy. After, he went shaking off to Baghdad."
Despite the relative lack of fighting in the city, British troops and residents warned that many Fedayeen forces and Iraqi troops could still be hiding out.
As the day ended, "Ali Babbas" headed home with their loot, and building and oil fires scarred the sky in long, black, undulating patches.
Some Basra residents took the long view.
"Today was crazy and chaotic," said Shakil Abbas, a 54-year-old painter. "We have to hope that the future will get better. Inshallah."