Despite a visible U.S. military presence in Baghdad, the city remains unsafe, particularly at night. Looters remain the primary cause of the unease, and many city residents have armed themselves in order to defend their family and property. Iraqis say Americans are to blame for the poor security situation because they are doing too little to enforce law and order. Some go so far as to say the U.S. troops should shoot looters on sight -- something the Americans now say they won't do.
Baghdad, 16 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Lack of security remains the primary problem in the Iraqi capital Baghdad. Nearly everyone seems to carry a gun, and shots ring out on a regular basis.
Many of the armed Iraqis are looters, who -- having stripped bare the city's ministries, palaces, and museums -- are turning their sights on ordinary citizens and private property.
The situation has left many Iraqis blaming the U.S. administration for doing little to stop the pillage. Some Iraqis say the Americans are capable of stopping the looting, but simply don't want to.
The U.S. appeared to be responding to such criticism by making broad changes in the U.S. civil administration in Iraq, including the arrival of L. Paul Bremer, a seasoned diplomat, to replace retired U.S. Major General Jay Garner. U.S. officials are also promising to send more troops to the city to help preserve order. But military officials in Baghdad have been quick to play down reports the U.S. had authorized a "shoot-on-sight" policy regarding looters and other criminals.
That news appears to come as a disappointment to some Iraqis, who say American troops should be using force to control crime in the capital city and elsewhere.
Rabya Mahdi works as a street vendor selling Iraqi national flags. He said American soldiers should intervene on behalf of ordinary Iraqis like himself and use their guns to stop looters and armed robbers. "We agree that [Americans must start shooting looters], because the looters want to destroy our country. The looters kill our children and our brothers and we don't accept it," he said.
Aram, a taxi driver, agreed: "If [the Americans] see a thief stealing other people's belongings, they should kill him. Yes, I agree with this, because they have left nothing. They have robbed government offices, they have robbed everything else. Now they have turned to robbing people's houses."
Yasin Kasim is a former police officer. He said American soldiers are well-armed and equipped with the best technology money can buy -- and yet they do nothing to stop the looting and armed robberies taking place on a daily basis. At the same time, however, he said U.S. troops should not be using their weapons to deter the criminals. He said they should put them in custody or punish them in some other way.
The main thing, he said, is for them to do something, because Iraqis have been left with no way to establish order themselves. "No, we cannot. Those who liberated us can," he said.
Dia Jabar sells soft drinks, mineral water, and cigarettes in a makeshift shop. He has no doubt that Americans should shoot looters. Jabar said it would be irresponsible for U.S. troops to simply go home, as some Iraqi Shi'ite politicians have demanded. The result, he said, would be chaos. "Civil war, a sectarian war -- Sunnis and Shi'as, Turkomans, Christians, Kurds, and Feylies," he said. He said before leaving the Americans must clean up the mess they made in the country -- first and foremost the looters.
Sergeant Jim Coultry and several other U.S. soldiers are on duty at one of the checkpoints in the center of the city. Two American tanks are located nearby. The soldiers listen to the complaints of people coming by, and chat with a group of Iraqi children.
Coultry told RFE/RL U.S. troops will not shoot civilian looters. He said U.S. forces are continuing to observe the military rules of engagement and will shoot only when they are threatened. Coultry said when groups of Iraqis are seen fighting between themselves, U.S. troops try not to interfere.
"We're not civil affairs [officers] either. We can't tell who's right and who's wrong," he said. "So, I mean, if you have two Iraqis -- I only speak English, both of them speak Arabic, no English. How I am to tell who's the aggressor, who's the person in the wrong?"
Coultry said in such a situation it is completely unclear how to act. "When I see an Iraqi chasing another Iraqi with a gun, should I interfere with my gun? I don't know what it's about. Maybe the first guy has stolen the other guy's wallet," he said.
Coultry said prosecuting looters is not the business of the U.S. Army. Such matters should be handled by a civilian administration and police.