Latest News

Looters run wild across Baghdad

BAGHDAD, Iraq—It helps to be an American with a tank.

Hundreds of Iraqis greeted a convoy of journalists arriving here from Jordan on Friday, but not with smiles and welcoming embraces.

Instead, the Iraqis were some of the thousands of looters that seem to run this city, bent on including the journalists' vehicles among their trophies.

At nearly every turn as the journalists drove through the city, mobs swarmed the vehicles, yanking on the doors and banging on the windows. Word quickly spread down the convoy to turn around and try a different route. But the next route would lead to much the same, as the city remained a lawless land run by no one but those bent on taking what they can.

Finally, on one street near the city's center, Marines with four tanks charged down the block toward the convoy, again beset by would-be looters. The looters scattered at the Americans' approach, and the Marines accompanied the journalists to the relative safety of the hotel zone.

It was unclear whether the Marines had come to rescue the journalists or whether it was just good fortune that they happened down the street. Some journalists said they had called Central Command to report their predicament. None of the journalists was hurt, apparently.

But their introduction to Baghdad made it clear that the homes and palaces of Saddam Hussein and his supporters aren't the only targets in the rampage that has swept this city since government control collapsed on Wednesday.

Baghdad on Friday seemed to be pitted against itself, armed residents against anyone with something worth stealing.

The journalists had set out for Baghdad from Jordan on Friday in a convoy that consisted of dozens of GMC Suburbans. The journalists were from around the world, but all drivers were Jordanian, many of whom had made the trip dozens of times before the war. Twenty percent of Jordan's exports went to Iraq, often with the help of these same drivers.

The road was 300 miles of three-lane highway, surrounded by desert. There are two major towns on the road, but the only major rest stop was now a charred skeleton, the victim of some sort of U.S. military assault.

At one point on the remote roadway lay the remains of a bus. Drivers said the bus, loaded with Syrian workers headed home, had been hit by American fire. Iraqis had stripped the bus of its tires.

There were few cars on the highway. Those that passed were flying white flags from their antennas.

American soldiers manned three makeshift checkpoints, using piles of dirt as roadblocks.

Four tanks sped along the roadway, leading a convoy said to include several Syrian diplomats leaving Baghdad.

Mayhem began before Baghdad. When Korean television reporter Hwang Sunghie pulled out her camera at a gas station, an Iraqi man brandished a pistol and fired a shot at the car. The reporter handed the man her camera, and he let them go. They were not injured.

Closer to Baghdad, the highway was clearly under the control of the U.S. military. Tanks and Humvees were parked along the roadsides. Burned out Iraqi tanks littered the roadway.

There, Iraqis cheered the convoy on, shouting: "America good. America good." Even looters waved as they tried to keep everything they had obtained on their speeding cars.

Children played with the American soldiers.

But within the city, without the military's mighty vehicles, the atmosphere changed.

A child carried an automatic rifle through the streets. The cheers turned to taunts, and the residents were shooting at any opportunity for goods.

The journalists were beset by residents who shot at their cars, broke car windows and spat at them. The caravan kept trying new roads only to find itself in front of more people who seemed ready to kill for the journalists' belongings.

Then the tanks arrived and the crowd scattered.


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