BAGHDAD, Iraq—Anarchy swept Baghdad, Kirkuk and Mosul on Friday as vanquished battalions of Iraqi soldiers streamed home, replaced by fearless battalions of Iraqi looters who ransacked, dismantled and torched banks, government ministries and other establishments.
With turbulence convulsing those cities, U.S. military commanders turned their attention to Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, but even that city seemed ready to fall. Marine officers said reconnaissance flights spotted looters there—but no masses of troops loyal to a regime the United States declared dead Friday.
"The Saddam regime has ended, is over, and we will stay until there is a free government," U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks, the allied commander, said in an order read to unit leaders.
He and others said U.S. combat forces would attempt to suppress looting but would not evolve into police forces, although the Geneva Convention requires an occupying power to provide for the population's safety and health.
Military commanders and the Bush administration said they expected the civil disorder to burn itself out soon.
"This is a transition period between war and what we hope will be a much more peaceful time," Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the Pentagon.
Said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: "If you go from a repressive regime in that transition period, there is untidiness."
There was plenty of untidiness Friday:
_In Kirkuk, Iraqis plundered supermarkets, burned government offices, balanced chandeliers on their shoulders and stripped a Pepsi Cola plant of soda and a natural gas plant of valves and wires.
_In Mosul, Iraqis hijacked city buses and garbage trucks, purloined books from a museum, took tons of rice from a U.N. warehouse, hugged stacks of Iraqi currency stolen from banks and dug up plants from one of Saddam's palaces.
_In Baghdad, Iraqis liberated computers, refrigerators and tennis rackets from the Rashid Hotel, set fire to the Ministry of Planning and a bank, and rolled beds and operating room equipment away from hospitals.
The International Committee of the Red Cross expressed profound alarm, saying that Baghdad's medical system "has virtually collapsed." Makeshift barricades against looters stood in some neighborhoods. Outside the Ministry of Oil, a handwritten sign next to a U.S. Marine machine gun nest said: "Looters Lane."
The widespread paroxysms of lawlessness, revenge and opportunism followed the disintegration of an entire Iraqi army corps—up to 30,000 soldiers—in northern Iraq and the nearly complete absence of a U.S. military presence there during the day.
By nightfall, a semblance of order returned to Kirkuk, where some Iraqi police officers reappeared on the streets. U.S. troops established positions in the surrounding oil fields and said they would begin patrolling the city Saturday.
"We will guard key installations and re-establish the rule of law," said Lt. Col. Dominic Caraccilo of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. "The whole town imploded for a day. That was to be expected. Now, we're going to go in."
The Pentagon dispatched another 2,100 U.S. troops to northern Iraq to help restore order, a senior defense official said. The official said the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Lejeune, N.C., will be taken off the USS Iwo Jima and other ships in the Mediterranean and flown to Iraq.
At the same time, considerable evidence suggested that widespread combat was coming to an end.
Thousands of Iraqi soldiers—dressed in civilian clothing, barefoot or wearing slippers or sandals, carrying no weapons—walked south along local roads from Kirkuk, homeward bound on journeys that could require up to a week.
That left Saddam's hometown of Tikrit as the only major Iraqi city still to be seized by U.S. troops. Some U.S. war planners expected a fierce battle there, but others believed intense airstrikes on Iraqi positions earlier this week cracked any remaining will to fight.
"It doesn't seem there's a last stand left," said Marine Lt. Col. Dave Pere.
In fact, many warplanes returned to the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier without releasing their bombs Friday. Iraqi forces in the north "have stopped being combatants," said Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem.
One F/A-18 Hornet pilot, Cmdr. Thomas Lalor, said events were unfolding so quickly that commanders "don't want us attacking something that was a target two hours ago, and now they've either surrendered or that piece of territory now is occupied by friendly forces."
In Baghdad, Marines attempted to curb looting in some places Friday but said they did not have sufficient personnel or equipment to police a city of 5 million people—and they said they had no intention of serving in that role.
"At no point, do we see us really becoming a police force," said Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks.
He also said the military has compiled a Most Wanted List of 52 regime leaders—including Saddam, whose fate remained unknown Friday. A deck of cards with names and photos is being distributed to U.S. and British soldiers, Brooks said.
Meanwhile, U.S. commanders struggled to find a way to restore order without appearing as repressive as Saddam's regime.
Franks, the allied commander, asked Iraqi police officers, civil servants, doctors, nurses and other essential workers to return to their jobs, though it was unclear who would pay them.
At the White House, spokesman Ari Fleischer downplayed the looting, calling it "a reaction to oppression" that soon will pass.
"Nobody likes to see it, but I think it has to be understood in the context of people who have been oppressed," Fleischer said. "The Iraqi people are on their way to liberty and freedom. Anything that involves looting is, of course, regrettable. But no one should miss the larger picture here."
In his first public comments since the collapse of the Iraqi regime, President Bush emphasized that the war will not be over until his objectives—including regime change and the seizure of weapons of mass destruction—are achieved. No such weapons have yet been found.
"When Tommy (Franks) says we've achieved our objective, that's when we've achieved our objective," Bush said after visiting wounded troops in two military hospitals near the White House.
The U.S. military death toll stood at 107 on Friday, with many others wounded.
A senior administration official said the crime and chaos in Baghdad were complicating the search for U.S. and other prisoners in Iraq, the hunt for weapons of mass destruction and efforts to locate surviving members of the Iraqi leadership.
The official, who requested anonymity, said intelligence officers were counting on officials of the fallen regime and Saddam's Baath Party to lead them to prisoners of war, chemical weapons and important records. The United States also contemplated keeping some "less obnoxious" members of Saddam's government at their posts, the official said.
But now, he said, many Baath Party officials have fled and looting threatens to destroy the records necessary to track down criminals and run the country.
Commanders believe some regime leaders have already escaped, some to Syria, and many more are trying.
"We know there are some that are alive and dead," Brooks said at coalition headquarters in Qatar. "It really doesn't matter. We're looking to the population to tell us what the conditions are."
Baghdad has been cordoned off, Brooks said, and troops have established checkpoints in northern and western Iraq. Nevertheless, capturing Saddam and his supporters will be challenging in a country the size of California.
"It is very difficult to cast a net over Iraq and prevent any movement," Brooks said. "There will be no shoulder-to-shoulder, arm-to-arm fence that goes around Iraq."
(Brown is in Baghdad; MacDonald is in Mosul; Merzer of The Miami Herald reported from Washington.
(Contributing were Sandy Bauers of The Philadelphia Inquirer aboard the USS Harry S. Truman; Ron Hutcheson and Diego Ibarguen at the White House; Tom Infield of The Philadelphia Inquirer at the Pentagon; Jonathan S. Landay in Kirkuk; Peter Smolowitz of The Charlotte Observer at allied headquarters in Qatar; and Juan O. Tamayo of The Miami Herald with the Marines in Iraq.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):
GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064):
20030411 IRAQ DAY24 SUMMARY
20030411 IRAQ DAY24 RDUP
20030411 SADDAM RULE
20020411 USIRAQ WAR CHRONO.