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British troops in Basra fail to quell civil unrest, angering residents

BASRA, Iraq—Armed men looted a neighboring electrical plant and then set it on fire. Their next target, Sabah Abdul Rahman feared, could be his own home.

So the rail-thin oil-industry worker marched toward a British Challenger tank parked in his neighborhood Wednesday—and demanded some action.

"Our families are frightened. At any moment now, somebody can attack us. Please help us," he pleaded in English with a British soldier. The soldier promised only to pass on the request.

For the third straight day Basra was the scene of unrest, even as British troops patrolled its streets. Looters plundered municipal offices, electrical plants, banks and other organs of local government vital for rebuilding Iraq. Gangs of young men stalked the streets, clutching metal rods and wooden clubs.

The British inaction against the looters angered many, and thousands of residents stayed in their homes, fearing for their safety and possessions.

"Under Saddam we were oppressed," said Hassan Hussein, 40, a driver. "Now it's the same, but only with different faces. We were hoping for a change."

British military representatives said their forces weren't here to police Basra and other Iraqi cities and that they didn't have the manpower to do so.

"They want an overnight solution," said Maj. Ben Farrell of the 1st Battalion Irish Guards. "It's not going to happen. People will just have to be patient."

A military commander did express concern that the looting could spawn more instability if a police force isn't established to keep order.

"They are in their honeymoon period," said Maj. Tim Brown of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards A Squadron. "The regime is gone. They're looting everything."

"But once all the looting is done, people will start stealing from people and shooting each other," he said. "Then policing is very important."

When efforts will begin to replace police officers and other government functions that have crumbled in the last few days isn't known.

"No one has actually started planning how the vacuum will be filled after the war," Brown said. "This is a crucial issue."

The insecurity is hurting the coalition's ability to win the hearts and minds of Basra residents.

"The British soldiers let people steal everything on purpose. I don't trust them," said Mar, a gangly teenager who didn't want his family name used. Looters burned down his family's store.

On the streets of Basra, gangs of young men pull people out of their cars and steal them, residents said. Men with short-cropped hair rise out of crowds and yell "Yes Saddam" to Westerners, taunting them until they leave.

Frightened shopkeepers are sleeping in their stores.

"I'm afraid to leave my shop or go home," said Muni Lefth, 58, as he sat on a stoop outside his shop. "Any gang can loot it."

But many customers are staying home.

"The good people are still in their houses, afraid," said Hassan Sahar, 45, an engineer. "If the days ahead are good, you'll meet thousands of them."

On Wednesday, Rahman came out to confront a British soldier and his tank.

"We're doing our best," the soldier told Rahman.

"At the Basra control station, there are no guards. Only two old men protecting it. All the people are frightened," said Rahman, speaking at a fast clip.

The soldier nodded.

"They don't feel safe."

The soldier nodded again.

"The government, all the officials, they are finished. They can't stop the looters. After looting they set things on fire."

"We'll pass the message on," the British soldier said finally and walked away.

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

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

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