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Chaos reins on streets in Baghdad, Mosul, Kurkik as looters take everything

MOSUL, Iraq—At the Central Bank of Iraq in Mosul, hundreds of looters tore through the tellers' cages Friday, blasted open the main vault and hauled off 50-pound burlap bags bulging with cash.

The city's jails were emptied, Baath Party offices were set ablaze, ammunition stocks exploded and the Mosul Museum was ransacked. A museum curator managed to arrive just in time to fend off a crowd that was breaking into a storeroom that contained ancient Assyrian and Babylonian tablets. A library worker said all the oldest volumes about the region had been stolen.

"They've looted our very history," he said sadly.

Mosul, Kirkuk and Baghdad were filled with the dark smoke of fires from burning buildings. Looters made off with everything that could be moved. They seemed to be driven as much by pent-up hatred of Saddam as by a yearning by deeply impoverished people to claim anything of value from a regime that neglected their needs as it spent the country's oil wealth on itself.

Baghdad was into its third straight day of anarchy Friday, and looting spread throughout the city.

U.S. Marines extended control over a few key ministry complexes and other strategic locations, but it would be several days before American forces had full control of the capital, said Capt. Joe Plenzler, a spokesman for the 1st Marine Division. U.S. forces also planned to stop the looting in the northern city of Kirkuk, beginning Saturday.

At the Ministry of Oil, Marines had set up a machine gun emplacement and barbed wire to prevent further pillaging. A tank sat behind a steel fence. A handwritten sign next to a machine gun nest said: "Looters Lane."

Electricity remained off, and basic necessities such as food, fresh water and gasoline were scarce.

"Why do the Americans go to the Oil Ministry and not the hospital, not the college?" asked Khader Alias, 45, a musician. "They must do something. Believe me, all Iraqi people are not like this."

The Ministry of Industry burned as looters ran off with furniture.

A man climbed atop a statue of Saddam and wrapped a pair of sandals around its neck. The crowd cheered. The gesture was an insult that Saddam had been sent packing. By late afternoon other people had dumped white paint on the statue and plastered handwritten insults on paper all over it.

Gunfire crackled all day throughout the city. At an intersection west of the Tigris River, an American M1 Abrams tank sat 100 yards behind a makeshift barricade. Soldiers idled about the tank, seeming oblivious to the looting nearby.

A few miles down the road, a group of U.S. Marines stood guard outside a warehouse complex full of rice, wheat and other food. "We got here a couple hours ago," said Corp. Adrian Moraru, 29, of Philadelphia. "We moved the people out. We are going to give them food later. But right now we are just waiting on word from higher."

Dozens of people mingled outside the gate.

"I have cancer," shouted one woman, covered from head to toe in the black abbaya. "Do you have any medicine?"

"We don't have any food in our house" said Anadildil Fite, 27. "My brother is blind, and all of the shops are closed. I am waiting for anything they will give us."

"Why is America not letting us get this food?" asked Hassan Abid al Amir, 35, a lawyer. "Why did they let the people take everything and destroy it?"

In Mosul, people stole the city's yellow garbage trucks and its red-and-white buses, many of which were left jackknifed in the middle of roadways. They stole ambulances, then packed them with office chairs or ceiling fans or potted plants.

Thousands overran the warehouses of the World Food Program in an industrial sector of Wadi Hajar, or Valley of Stone. In a matter of hours, they had carted off tons of food, sugar from Egypt, rice from Vietnam, soap from Turkey, apricot jam from Syria.

Mohammed Omar, 22 and unemployed, sat on a 50-pound sack of black tea with a 50-pound sack of sugar beside him. He said he knew that taking them was wrong, but he was starving. He hadn't eaten any sort of meat in a month.

At the Rafiddain Bank, thieves tried to open the vault with a cutting torch, but failed. Then they wired together six hand grenades, but that blast failed, too. A man with a rocket launcher was summoned, but he judged the enterprise too risky, slung the weapon over his shoulder and wandered off.

Kurdish fighters, known as peshmergas, tried to scare off the bank looters. Several dozen peshmergas and thugs dressed up to look like them carried away many bags of currency before the bank was empty.

The few thousand Kurdish fighters who entered Mosul were helpless to control things, and there were only a handful of American soldiers in the area. A Kurdish commander in Mosul said he had been ordered to return with his men Friday evening to the Kurdish capital of Irbil, about 30 miles to the south.

"The U.S. troops should have planned for this," one man shouted above the din of the riots and gunshots in Mosul's main square. "If this is going to be our future, I'd rather have the regime back."

Friday was the holy day of prayer for Muslims, and over a public-address system in Mosul one imam was heard imploring the citizens to stop the rampage: "What has happened to you, Mosulis? Please do not continue with this riot. We are a civilized people. Please stop this."

In Kirkuk, another major northern city, the 173rd Airborne Brigade and special forces planned to begin patrols and set up checkpoints Saturday to stop the looting, said Lt. Col. Dominic Caraccilo, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry. "We will guard key installations and re-establish the rule of law."

That will leave a brigade of fewer than 1,000 infantry soldiers to police an ethnically divided city of nearly 1 million.

Caraccilo said the Kurdish militias that entered the city Thursday would leave within 24 hours, a move designed to appease U.S. ally Turkey, which is concerned about the influence of Kurdish forces in the oil-rich city.

A daylong gun battle erupted about 10 miles outside Kirkuk when ethnic Kurds, who dominate the region, descended on the Arab village of Riaz and began stealing vehicles. Residents said at least nine people were killed. The Kurds claimed that members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party were holed up in Riaz. But a senior Kurdish rebel commander, Mam Rostam, confirmed that the fighting had been triggered by Kurdish looters. U.S.-backed Kurdish rebels arrived in the late afternoon and ordered the other Kurds to leave, ending the incident.

The U.S.-backed Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan made no effort to stop the looting in Kirkuk until large numbers of PUK police deployed in the city center in late afternoon.

At Kirkuk's North Gas Factory, where a fire raged for much of the day and the air reeked of methane, armed men pulled pipes, corrugated iron sheets and valves out of a massive warehouse and loaded them into a dump truck. Looters also tore up the Pepsi-Cola plant.

Mohammad Abdul Rahman, a 63-year-old Kurd, said he was a partner in the plant. Standing forlornly on a glass-carpeted sidewalk as boys carted away cases of empty bottles and pieces of machinery, Mohammad said the looters thought the plant was owned by Saddam's eldest son, Odai.

"I cannot speak," he said, shaking his head.

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(McDonald reported from Mosul, Brown from Baghdad and Landay from Kirkuk. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Ken Dilanian with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Kirkuk contributed to this report.)

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

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

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