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Iraqis riot in Basra; British troops try to restore order

BASRA, Iraq—Hundreds of poor Iraqis looted shops, warehouses and City Hall in Iraq's second-largest city Monday, openly defying Saddam Hussein for the first time in their lives.

A fire blazed on the top floors of the Sheraton Hotel as a horde of young Iraqi men swarmed inside, stealing and ripping out anything of value. People threw wicker chairs from balconies and carted away doors and desks in donkey carts in full view of patrolling British soldiers.

Some teen-agers chanting "No Saddam" walked over shattered glass and threw wooden beams at a large portrait of the dictator in the garish 1970s-style lobby. Then they scratched his face off with a pole before bringing the painting crashing down onto the water-filled floor.

"We're just grabbing what we can," said Saleh Mohammed, 16, as he walked out with a roll of carpet. "It was so expensive under the Saddam regime."

British troops moved into Basra on Sunday and declared forces loyal to Saddam defeated on Monday. Three British soldiers were killed and five were wounded in the fighting for Basra, according to official reports.

There was no word on the Iraqi death toll. At Marine Combat Headquarters near Baghdad, British Army Col. Jamie Martin said British forces had deliberately left the eastern approaches to the city open so that pro-Saddam fighters could escape the city, and many Saddam loyalists were thought to have faded away.

But dozens of Arab mercenaries fought to the death, according to Basra residents. They identified the Arabs as natives of Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia as well as Palestinians.

Many of the fighters appear to be poor, disillusioned youth from the Arab "street" who hate American policy in the region and may support Saddam only to defy the United States.

"I personally met one of them," said Karim Mohammed, 41, a trader. "He told me he was a Syrian and that he had come here to fight for God. I think they came here to fight for a bit of everything—for their cause and money."

Many of the Arab fighters had hunkered down in Basra's College of Education, and others were spread around Basra, Mohammed said. On Monday, seven bodies lay at the scene of a bloody firefight near Basra University. Some were half-submerged in a fetid pool of water. Others had limbs torn apart like twigs.

Iraqis who gathered to see the bodies said the men were not Iraqi by their features and clothing. One of the fighters lay face down in the mud, a rocket-propelled grenade by his side. A green bandana was tied around his forehead that residents said was worn by many of the fedayeen-Arabs, as the non-Iraqi pro-Saddam fighters were called. He also wore black sneakers not available in Iraq.

The dead Arab fighters received little sympathy from the Iraqis.

"They got paid," said Ahmed Abdul Gani, 22, a laborer. "If it was for a cause, they would have stayed in Palestine or Syria."

An Iraqi Red Crescent aid worker walked past the corpses moments later and said, "What good is Saddam to them now?"

Throughout Basra, British forces were confronted with lawlessness as the Saddam-inspired discipline of the city dissipated with the British advance.

"We want to protect them, but we're in a war," said Capt. Richard Clare of the 1st Battalion Light Infantry. "We only have so many men. We cannot picket every building."

Apache helicopter gunships buzzed over the city. Sporadic gunfire could be heard in some neighborhoods.

"The goal is to dominate the area, clear out the militias and restore normalcy," said Clare. "We've got to be on our guard."

But restoring normalcy to their lives, many Basra residents said, meant protecting them from the looters, whom they called "Ali Babas" after the fable "Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves."

"There's no policemen," said Dr. Ahmed Al Galibi, a surgeon at the Basra Teaching Hospital. "War has no rules. The thieves are taking over."

Seven thieves came to the hospital's door, he said. They looted the medical supplies warehouse and tried to steal the ambulances. One thief hopped into a Land Cruiser. Hospital workers called a British patrol nearby, which shot the thief dead after he refused to stop the vehicle.

But the hospital staff are terrified of the future. The British, they know, won't always be at hand. Some of the staff have stopped coming to work, and surgery patients are being sent home as early as possible—even on the same day as their operation.

"We are afraid of the Ali Babas," said Dr. Adnan Jassim, the assistant director of the hospital. "We can't protect against them."

At City Hall, which was devastated in a pinpoint U.S. airstrike a few days ago, Iraqis were rummaging through the rubble and taking out furniture.

Many of the looters are the poorest of the poor who bore the brunt of Saddam's unequal policies. For decades, Saddam ignored the Shiite Muslim-dominated south, leaving it underdeveloped, while favoring the ruling Sunni Muslims in his government.

"The looters are ordinary people," said Mohammed al Assadi, 41, a trader. "They've spent 35 years under the thumb of Saddam."

Along the streets of Basra, several murals of Saddam were torn down.

Most Basra residents said Iraq doesn't need another strongman regime to keep law and order. But if democracy is to work in Iraq, they said, a strong local government needs to be in place soon.

"We need a police to restore peace without confusion," said Haider Ali Abouwi, 31, a teacher.

But if the looting continues, he said, "it will be a worse famine than before and Saddam's rule will be better than this one."

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):

USIRAQ-BASRA.

Iraq

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