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Iraq's Slide Into Lawlessness Squanders Good Will for US
Published on Sunday, May 18, 2003 by the New York Times
Iraq's Slide Into Lawlessness Squanders Good Will for U.S.
by Edmund L. Andrews and Susan Sachs
 

BAGHDAD, Iraq, May 17 It was another bad week for Karim W. Hassan, director general of Iraq's electricity commission.

Looters had already pilfered underground cables, carted off computers that regulate power distribution, stolen 25 of the guards' 30 patrol cars, emptied warehouses of spare parts, ransacked substations and shot up transmission lines across the country's electric grid.

Then, his men reported, armed bandits stole the only cable splicer in central Iraq, needed to repair countless vandalized electric lines.

On top of that, another group of gunmen stole his own car. The upshot: yet more delays in restoring electricity in this city, weeks after the war ended.

"Give me security," said Dr. Hassan, speaking for many Iraqis, "and I'll give you electricity."

The power company's problems are but one example of how Iraq's descent into lawlessness has stalled its return to normalcy, increased the costs of reconstruction and squandered much of the good will Iraqis felt for their new American overseers.

In the space of a few weeks, awe at American power in war has been transformed into anger at American impotence in peace. A crime wave, increasingly the work of organized gangs far better armed than the skeleton Iraqi police forces, has kept citizens in a peculiar state of limbo, free yet fearful.

Delays in restoring electricity and telecommunications have kept businesses closed. Banks, looted of at least $500 million in deposits, have yet to reopen. Traders, attacked daily by armed bands on the highway linking Iraq to Jordan, are reluctant to send much needed imports.

Iraq's government, the country's biggest employer, is essentially shut down, aggravating unemployment.

During the bombing of Iraq, the American military took pains to limit damage to the country's infrastructure. The intent, commanders said repeatedly, was to ensure that Iraqis could speedily resume a normal life once Saddam Hussein's dictatorship was eliminated.

But the wholesale plundering of government property, often under the eyes of American soldiers in the capital, has largely undone those good intentions. Iraq's new administrators now say the cost of reconstruction, in both time and money, will be much higher than expected.

"The impact of the looting was greater than we probably realized at the time," said Col. John Peabody, an Army engineer charged with securing public utility sites. "Everything of value to making things run was stolen."

Military commanders have said they were surprised by the scale of the initial pillaging but were, in any case, preoccupied with securing the city. In Washington, in the glow of the war's successful finish, the dismantling of Iraq's government buildings attracted little interest.

As the looting evolved into brazen daylight carjackings, revenge killings and armed robberies, a few American officers on the ground took the initiative to impose order on individual neighborhoods and towns.

But overall, the military's most senior people resisted using their combat forces as crime-busters, except when opportunities arose to seize weapons. Meanwhile, local police officers returning to work were permitted to carry only sidearms. Most have refused to confront criminals or even stay in their looted station houses overnight.

L. Paul Bremer III, Iraq's newly appointed civilian administrator, said after arriving here last week that he recognized the need to restore law and order. Army officers said a debate was under way over whether to allow the Iraqi police to have AK-47's. A new infusion of American military police officers is on hand to respond to reports of violent crime if they are summoned by the intermittent Army patrols on Baghdad streets.

Only in recent days, long after the value of using American soldiers as guards became clear, have tanks taken positions outside government buildings. But most ministries have already been gutted of desks, light fixtures, computers, air- conditioners, records and toilets.

Iraqi frustration at the power vacuum burst out this week, when Baghdad city workers pleaded with the American-run Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance to at least issue a public announcement that citizens must obey the law.

A senior official of the reconstruction office said a statement, to be read on a local American-financed radio station, was being prepared, although it was not clear what laws were now in effect in Iraq. For many Iraqis, the damage has been done.

"We used to have a brutal dictatorship that controlled everything," said Mahmoud Ahmed Uthman, chairman of Al Khair Financial Investments Company, an investment fund that has been active here for years. "When the government collapsed, there was nothing left except a great emptiness. And that emptiness has been filled with chaos."

The Road to Amman

Smooth and six-lanes wide for much of its course, Highway 11 from Baghdad to Jordan's capital, Amman, is Iraq's most important land route to the rest of the world.

These days, it is also an illustration of how crime is crippling the recovery of commerce.

One day last week, less than an hour west of Baghdad, three hijackers shot out the windshield of Abdulnasser Rafiq's GMC. After forcing him to stop, they stole the car and lobbed a grenade at him and his passenger as they drove away.

"It used to be that they would just take your money and whatever you had inside," said Mr. Rafiq, who has been ferrying merchants to and from Jordan for eight years. "I paid $20,000 for that truck, and they'll try to sell it for $1,000. I'd be happy to pay $1,000 myself just to get the truck back."

Attacks like these occur almost daily, and they have reduced traffic on the highway to a trickle. Iraq's reconstituted police forces do not patrol it. Many officers admit they feel too outgunned by the criminal gangs to mount serious investigations.

As a result, travel between Baghdad and Amman is limited to those who are either very determined or very armed.

For the lucky few, like companies bringing in gasoline or other key supplies from Jordan, American Army units with six Humvees have begun escorting convoys of trucks.

Even that protection is limited. Units of the Third Infantry Division escorted four civilian gasoline tankers from the Jordanian border to south of Baghdad. But they refused to escort the tankers on the equally dangerous trip back to Jordan.

"The bandits don't know whether my truck is loaded or not," said Hatam Suleiman, a Jordanian driver, as he waited for his convoy to be handed off from one set of Army escorts to another. "Next time, if I don't get protection in both directions, I'm not coming back."

To the casual observer, many of the markets in downtown Baghdad seem as thriving as ever. Vendors display imported products aimed at postwar coping: satellite telephones, to substitute for Iraq's obliterated telephone system; satellite television dishes, which were illegal under Mr. Hussein's rule; portable kerosene stoves, because the usual cooking gas is hard to find.

But on closer inspection, the situation is abnormal. Scores of stores, looted immediately after the war ended, are still shuttered. Those that have reopened close before dark. Vendors have armed themselves with pistols and automatic weapons. Sales are down sharply.

Largely because of the initial wave of lootings at government ministries and businesses, millions of Iraqis have not returned to work or received any wages beyond a one-time $20 payment for emergency needs. But fear has kept many shoppers, especially women, at home.

"People are afraid to come here," said Muhammad Qassim Mustapha, a spice trader in the heart of Baghdad's huge Showja wholesale market. Between housewives who are afraid to shop and restaurant owners who are afraid to reopen, he said, spice sales are running about one-tenth their prewar rate.

Corporations and foreign investors are even more paralyzed. In the Jordanian port city of Aqaba, which serves as a major gateway for exports to Iraq, shipping executives say cargo is piling up in warehouses because customers are too nervous to move it across the border.

Without predictable rules, or any ability to protect property from theft or seizure, even the most enthusiastic believers in a new Iraq say it is still to unstable major commitments.

"How can you do business if you cannot ensure the security of your warehouses and factories?" asked Saad al-Janabi, whose family group owns scores of businesses in Iraq. As a result of the original looting, compounded by new security fears and the lack of electricity, Mr. Janabi said, none of the family's factories have yet resumed operation.

Assim al-Janabi, Saad's father and patriarch of the family industrial group, has yet to return to Iraq after fleeing to Dubai shortly before the war broke out.

"I told him it's just too dangerous," said the younger Mr. Janabi.

Brick by Brick by Brick

Colonel Peabody remembers the day last month when he first visited the electricity authority's control center in Baghdad, which used computers to modulate power across the country to prevent crashes.

"The floor was covered with three inches of paper, debris and glass," he said. "The computers were stolen or destroyed."

In retrospect, the colonel said, American troops should have protected the center "had we known about it."

Now the job of putting the system back together again falls to a committee of Iraqi and American engineers who meet several times a week in a building on the vast grounds of one of Mr. Hussein's palace compounds. On the wall they have taped up a diagram of the country's electric grid, with two dotted lines snaking around the system to indicate what is damaged.

Electric power remains intermittent in much of Baghdad. The electric company workers who shut down neighborhood substations to ease the load have been attacked by residents. Others are too frightened to go to work, worried that thieves will come seeking whatever equipment remains.

Soldiers and tanks have been assigned to deliver air conditioners to the plants, where they are needed to keep instruments cool. They have been deployed to accompany the cranes that go out to repair transmission towers.

"I don't worry about getting stuff in here safely," said Colonel Peabody. "I worry about it getting looted once it gets here."

While some of the damage to the electrical grid resulted from the war, as advancing troops plowed past power lines, most of the difficulties are the result of looting, according to Dr. Hassan, the senior Iraqi electricity official. "They are taking anything," he said.

Like other government properties, where looters still can be seen disassembling the buildings brick by brick, the electrical system has been methodically vandalized.

But because the system is a hodgepodge of Chinese, French, Russian, American and other parts, replacing what is stolen has not been easy since spare parts were also stolen.

Last month, Army engineers were thrilled to find a private construction company here with supplies of lumber and other materials needed to start repairs. But, two weeks ago, a gang of thieves broke into that company's warehouse and cleaned it out.

Everyone attending the regular committee meetings agrees that the only way to restore power is security that, and money.

But for the moment, military officers say they do not believe it is practical or possible to put armed guards at every one of the 600 electrical stations, substations and transformers in the country, as well as nearly 420 additional water and sewage system sites.

As a stopgap measure, they are trying to get uniforms, badges and AK-47 assault rifles for 125 new guards, who will work in two shifts, for priority sites in the electric grid.

Imprisoned at Home

When American forces crushed Mr. Hussein's government in early April, few people were more delighted than Basir, a wealthy architect in one of Baghdad's best suburbs.

Yet today, he and his family remain imprisoned by fear in their own home. Pale and fatigued even at 10 in the morning, his mood has soured.

Ten days ago, armed men ambushed and robbed Basir and his wife, Lubna, as they were walking outside their house. Five days ago, assailants shot and stabbed to death Lubna's uncle in his garden at 8:30 a.m. Lubna's aunt, Faiza, is still hospitalized with a bullet wound to her head.

"How is it that the United States could plan every single step in this war so perfectly, and then be so ignorant about what is happening now?" said Basir, who spoke on the condition that his family name not be published.

Lubna, who works for the International Telecommunications Union, listened quietly and then vented her own anger.

"People are already beginning to say, `Why don't we go back to Saddam?' " she said. "At least it was more safe, more peaceful."

Such attitudes are mild in comparison to the frustration that many less affluent and less Westernized Iraqis express.

Rich or poor, people seem shocked as the initial wave of postwar looting turned into the plague of chronic street crime. Conspiracy theories about American motives abound, providing some distraction but doing little to ease the paralysis that has gripped people like Basir and his family.

Although the family lives on a pretty street in the affluent neighborhood of Jadiria, they are so frightened that they drive rather than walk the 50 yards to their next-door neighbor's home. They said they left the house only when absolutely necessary, and they have bricked up their front window rather than replace the plate glass that was shattered during the war.

"Even if they couldn't control it in the beginning, they aren't doing anything about it now," said Basir of the Americans. "What's happening here does not comply with any Western standards, not even the standards of Albania."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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