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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- Looting in Basra Continues, Grows Worse

Basra, 9 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The crime has gotten worse in Basra today, compared to the last two days since British troops occupied the city. Today we saw buildings set afire by looters now that they have been thoroughly emptied, including the Sheraton Hotel and the nearby museum of natural history. Fires in those buildings are out, but a university building continues to smolder. Also for the first time we're hearing of robberies of individuals by mobs or gunmen.

I visited one of the victims at the central hospital this afternoon. He was driving on the boulevard behind the hospital when suddenly four men in a car flagged him down. When they got out with automatic weapons, he at first thought the men were looking for a stolen car. Then one man shot him in the ankle before putting the gun to his head and ordering him out.

I met this man lying in agony on a hospital bed, awaiting sutures to repair his torn tendon from the gunshot. But the hospital itself has no electricity and almost no water and no medicine. The hospital itself today lost an ambulance when a mob that had created a makeshift checkpoint forced out the driver, beat him up, and stole the vehicle.

I've asked a lot of people, including the victims of these robberies, if the robbers are Ba'ath Party members who are trying to get money to flee the city. They say "no." They think the robbers are from nearby villages who have swarmed into the city to loot and now steal.

Everyone we meet calls on the British to stop the looting and to restore law and order. But the British have too little manpower to do more than conduct random patrols. As one British officer told me they hope that the random patrols, in which they show up unexpectedly, will scare the looters off the street.

The British have begun arresting people for stealing really valuable things. There are too many people carrying out things like furniture and doors to stop them all.

But I will say the British patrols do show up unexpectedly. While I was interviewing some people in a hospital reception area today, a group of British soldiers suddenly burst in because they had heard gunshots. They did not find the source of the shots and eventually went off to patrol somewhere else. They arrive in armored cars and they can move quickly around the city.

One other element to note and that is that the Basra police may be preparing to organize themselves and get back out into the city if they can make some kind of arrangement with the British military authorities. While we were interviewing some people on the street today, a man came up to us introducing himself as a former commander of a traffic police unit. He said he was looking for any way he could meet British military officials and that he had been in contact with former colleagues who also want to get back to work. He said he and other civilian police officers had worked for Saddam because he said, "Saddam was all-powerful." Now, he's ready to cooperate with the new powers in the city.

These are hopeful signs when police officers want to get back to work. And the British now say they are ready to mount guards around police and fire stations so that those services can regroup. Unfortunately, some of the police stations we have passed are gutted and looted. And we have seen fire engines being driven off along the highway south of the city by looters.

It is going to take a long time to get basic services in Basra back on their feet and it is a race against the clock to do it before people in Basra lose their faith that the toppling of the old regime is in their interest too. As one man told me today, "I know the Americans and British came here to take our oil, but we still believe it will benefit us too." Producing the benefits quickly is essential to winning the cooperation of the people and in the end to show them that the war was not steal what the have but to turn Iraq into a freer and prosperous state instead.