Chaos threatened to engulf Iraq yesterday, with American-led forces apparently unwilling or unable to deal with a storm of arson, looting, car-jacking, drunkenness and factional fighting that swept Baghdad, Mosul and other big cities.
The Red Cross, aid charities and Iraqi citizens pleaded with the US to honor its obligations under the Geneva Convention and protect the civilian population. But a senior commander said: "At no time do we really see [ourselves] becoming a police force."
An Iraqi man gestures during an anti-U.S. rally in the center of Baghdad, as hundred of Iraqis demonstrate demanding peace and security, Saturday, April 12, 2003. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)
After the capitulation of the northern city of Mosul – scene of some of the most frantic looting and destruction yesterday – a reported 2,000 US troops were deployed to secure the northern oilfields, bringing all of Iraq's oil reserves, the second largest in the world, under American and British protection. But US commanders in the field said they did not have the manpower, or the orders from above, to control the scenes on the streets of Baghdad and other cities.
The violence in the capital worsened from the looting seen on Thursday to the torching of dozens of government buildings, armed robberies and battles between Shia gunmen and Fedayeen paramilitary troops loyal to Saddam Hussein. In Nasiriyah, two children were shot dead by US Marines after the van in which they were traveling ignored an order to stop. In Basra, British troops killed five men who fired at them while trying to rob a bank. In Mosul, near the Turkish border, where the entire Iraqi V Corps capitulated overnight, mobs rampaged through the streets, stripping public buildings, invading the central bank, tearing up banknotes and burning a market.
Mosul's university library, celebrated for its ancient manuscripts, was sacked, despite appeals from the minarets of the city's mosques for people to stop destroying their own town. "Mosul is facing a barbaric assault," said Huthaif al-Dewaji, a professor of medicine at the university. "We urge Mr Bush, Mr Blair ... the commanders of the peshmerga [Kurdish guerrillas] to help us establish some control."
"Where are the Americans?" a man clutching a hand-grenade shouted as he and dozens of other angry Arab residents advanced on a television team in the main square. "You are shooting pictures but you have no way of stopping people from looting. Where are the Americans? Get out! Get out!"
In Najaf, where a Shia religious leader was hacked to death on Thursday, days after returning from exile in London, the rival Shia faction that murdered him was reported to have taken control of the city.
In Kirkuk, Kurdish forces withdrew but a supermarket and Baath party offices were set alight amid growing tension between the Arab and Kurdish communities.
Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defense Secretary, dismissed the chaos as a "transitional" phase, born of "pent-up frustration" after 24 years of oppression. He accused newspapers of exaggerating the unrest and said television stations were showing the same footage over and over again "of some person walking out of a building with a vase.
"It's untidy. And freedom's untidy. And free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things," Mr Rumsfeld said.
"They're also free to live their lives and do wonderful things. And that's what's going to happen here."
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned that Baghdad's medical system had "virtually collapsed" from a combination of combat damage, looting and fear.
An Iraqi shopkeeper gestures to looters in front of a burning building in Baghdad's al-Rashid street(AFP/Patrick Baz)
Few medical staff had reported for work after mobs invaded some hospitals on Thursday and stripped them of vital equipment. An ICRC spokeswoman, Nada Doumani, said: "The ICRC is profoundly alarmed by the chaos ... Under the Geneva Conventions, it is up to the occupying forces to impose law and order."
The spokesman for US Central Command, Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, suggested that there was little the 120,000 American and British troops inside Iraq could do until a new civilian administration was formed. The first talks between potential Iraqi leaders, from inside and outside the country, will be convened in Nasiriyah on Tuesday.
"What we see [ourselves doing] is taking actions that are necessary to create stability," Brig Gen Brooks said. British officials indicated that their troops in the southern city of Basra would soon take direct action to stamp out lawlessness.
In Baghdad, food was said to be running low last night, water reduced to a trickle and the electricity still off. Although some looters concentrated on government buildings, others were attacking shops and even robbing people at gunpoint.
Arkan Daoud Boutros, 24, said: "Americans entered the city with the slogan of helping us, but we haven't seen anything from them. We have seen only robbery."
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd