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Iraq: Looting Focuses Attention On Importance Of Reestablishing Security

  • Jeremy Bransten

As U.S. and British forces consolidate their hold on Basra, Baghdad, and other Iraqi cities, the issue of reestablishing security is becoming a prime concern. On 9 April, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) announced it was temporarily suspending its operations in Baghdad, after the killing of a senior staffer. The ICRC resumed its work in the capital yesterday, but the situation remains chaotic. RFE/RL examines the challenges facing the coalition in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's downfall, especially the restoration of law and order.

Prague, 11 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Minutes after U.S. forces rolled through key parts of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, on 9 April, the cheering crowds turned into mobs of looters, ransacking government buildings and shops.

Much the same happened a few days earlier in the southern city of Basra, after British forces made it clear they had replaced Saddam Hussein's authority in the city.

To a certain extent, the expression of pent-up anger and jubilation by ordinary Iraqis was understandable, as they smashed statues of their former leader and destroyed other symbols of the regime. Neither the British nor the U.S. military intervened to quell passions. But as more serious, organized looting takes place, it is rapidly becoming clear that reestablishing law and order on city streets will soon have to become a priority for the coalition.

The question is: What approach should the coalition take? U.S. and British forces could soon be caught in a "no-win" scenario. They may be reluctant to do much policing themselves, eager not to be seen as a repressive force. But the defeat of Saddam's forces has left a near total security vacuum, which, if it is allowed to turn into anarchy, will also earn the enmity of ordinary Iraqis.

Youssef Choueiri is an expert on the politics and history of the region at the University of Exeter's Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies in England. He told RFE/RL: "There is a huge political void as a result of a series of military defeats or other circumstances, and the whole apparatus of the government, the military, and other authorities has simply collapsed or been withdrawn or denied to the coalition forces. No one has come forward, for example, to surrender a particular Iraqi city or to at least introduce the coalition forces to the inner dynamics of a particular area or city. And as a result, this void has simply led to a general chaotic disorderly situation."

Ian Kemp of "Jane's Defence Weekly" told RFE/RL that both U.S. and British forces have experience in policing postwar environments. But many troops are still fighting the war itself, including battles inside the city limits of Baghdad. There are too few of them to patrol Iraq's major cities at this stage, and many of the units on the ground are not the best suited for police work.

"Certainly the problems of reestablishing law and order, preventing punishment beatings and killings -- this is something that both British and U.S. forces have had extensive experience of over the past several years in the former Yugoslavia. [They have been] deployed to Bosnia, deployed to Kosovo and, of course, more recently [have participated in] the operation in Afghanistan. But it's true, it's not ideal for some of the units that are deployed, such as the heavy armored units. It's a role for which infantry units are better placed. More importantly, it's a role for military-police units, civil-affairs units, who can liaise with the civilian population. And there's clearly going to be a need for linguists," Kemp said.

The concern that looting could degenerate into more lethal violence means an effort to collect weapons from ordinary Iraqis will have to be started as soon as possible. But as Kemp noted, their sheer number among the civilian population poses a major challenge.

"Certainly, it's going to be a cause for concern, and certainly one of the first things the coalition is going to try and do is to collect as many of the weapons as possible. And this itself is going to be a major undertaking because no doubt there will be millions of small arms scattered throughout the country. Anyone who is likely to be involved in criminal activity is not likely to give up those weapons readily, so it's still going to be necessary to go through Baghdad, Basra, and the other major centers almost on a house-by-house basis in the search for weapons. Now, this is not necessarily going to be the aggressive operation that would have been planned if it had still been a war-fighting operation. But it is absolutely crucial that all of the weapons that have been distributed in Baghdad and across Iraq, that they are put under coalition control, so that they can then be re-issued to whatever new Iraqi forces are established," Kemp said.

Policing will be an immediate need as Saddam Hussein's regime crumbles in Iraq. But setting up an administrative framework at the local level to handle basic services will be required almost simultaneously. Even before the war, the White House emphasized it was only interested in striking at the upper echelons of the Iraqi leadership and its ruling Ba'ath Party. Rank-and-file party members, mid-level state employees, even army officers -- it was said -- could lend their skills in building a new Iraq.

But those officials are understandably keeping a low profile in the current circumstances. And the fact that the U.S. administration appears to be internally divided on how best to establish a transition mechanism in Iraq and has given no indication of how long it intends to remain in the country is discouraging any Iraqis -- both those tied with the former regime and those with no distinct affiliation -- from coming forward to offer their services, according to Youssef Choueiri.

"People cannot simply join a regime which is not certain about its mode of operations and how it's going to relate to society at large, how long it's going to last, when it is going to hand over power back to the Iraqis -- all these issues have to be resolved. People have to be clear in their minds that what they are doing is in conformity with a certain program, and they feel at ease when they do something, in the sense that they don't want to compromise themselves by joining an occupying force which hasn't made it clear yet how the next step will be taken," Choueiri said.

Choueiri sees the case of Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, who has received strong backing from the Pentagon but has no majority support inside Iraq, as a litmus test. The degree to which Chalabi or other relatively unknown emigres are given prominent positions by the British and Americans, he says, will soon indicate to Iraqis whether they will have a genuine opportunity to shape their own futures or whether a new regime will largely be imposed on them -- and they will behave accordingly.

"One example is the problem of Ahmad Chalabi -- what role is he going to play? Is the Pentagon going to impose him on other political forces in Iraq or does the State Department have another candidate or are the British preparing a different formula? All these different approaches do not bode well for the future and do not encourage lower and middle-level officials to come forward and start cooperating," Choueiri said.

The U.S. Defense Department's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) for Iraq announced yesterday that it planned to unveil some of its plans early next week. For now, the situation is, at best, fluid.