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Looting continues in Baghdad; Iraqis urge U.S. to bring peace

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Helter-skelter gunfire crackled through the streets of Baghdad on Saturday as frenzied looters trashed stores, schools and the national museum, leading some Iraqis to urge U.S. troops to do more to protect the five million residents of this ruined city.

Several hundred protesters gathered at the base of the famously toppled metal statue of Saddam Hussein and chanted: "We want an Iraqi leader" and "We want peace."

"The U.S. promised to protect us. They destroyed the city and left us," said Hazeem Hashan, 38, who said he was protecting his home with a gun. "We cannot have freedom if we don't have peace."

As he spoke, plumes of sooty black smoke curled over the city. A fuel storage depot was ablaze on the outskirts of town. Government complexes also continued to burn, among them Iraqi Air Force headquarters and the still smoldering Ministry of Trade.

Thousands of U.S. forces stood guard at posts outside ministries and captured palace compounds, but said they had no instructions to stop looters.

Whenever soldiers cleared people out of a Baath Party or Iraqi military building, swarms returned as soon as the troops moved on. Cars and donkeys moved down the roads carrying stolen ladders, lumber and furniture. Trucks on roadside were stripped of batteries and wiring.

In frenzied looting, thieves ransacked the Iraq National Museum of hundreds of Babylonian, Sumerian and Assyrian artifacts dating back some 7,000 years—a cultural loss that shocked curators and historians around the globe.

U.S. soldiers said they are under orders to crush final pockets of resistance from those loyal to Saddam—but not to halt the mayhem.

"We've been told to find and destroy, when possible, military and paramilitary personnel and equipment," said Lt. Col. Stephen Bruch, who commands a battalion in the second brigade of the Army's 101st Airborne Division. Bruch's troops fanned out across the Ghubabah and Al Jihad sections of the city.

Outside of one school, where troops discovered a cache of grenades and mortars, a group of men walked up and said their local bank was being robbed.

Army Capt. Don Burke shook his head at their appeals to protect the bank.

"We're not going to interfere with the bank," Burke said. "We have to go; you have to protect yourselves."

Riding through a neighborhood in his armored Humvee, Army Cpl. David Herrera watched a boy lugging a box of tools from a building.

"They finally get a little piece of freedom they never had, and they're taking advantage of it," Herrera said. "As long as they don't get too crazy, fighting and rioting amongst themselves, I think it's okay."

Looters pushed everything from wheelbarrows to supermarket carts filled with huge household items—refrigerators, boilers, mattresses, rolled up carpets, even what looked like an antique French couch.

Two young men appeared to be joyriding in a stolen bus. On its sooty side it said "Saddam International Airport."

Not far away, a Shiite couple, easily spotted by the woman's black garment, carried matching cocktail tables upended on their heads.

Signs of ruin were everywhere—burned cars and bombed Iraqi tanks, torn up roadways and blown out buildings. Sewage bubbled up on busy Saadoun Street, where shops were shuttered on Saturday, usually a workday.

There were also some signs that civil society might take root again.

Outside one of Saddam's palaces, young men and boys set themselves up as self-styled traffic cops—waving a steady stream of vehicles through a single lane, around barbed wire and shrapnel that scarred the once fashionable area.

On Karmada Street, a commercial thoroughfare, residents said they were putting together their own police force, training their young sons in guarding homes. They're also being taught to kill thieves, warned 56-year-old Khadair el Zawaiah.

U.S. officials reached out to residents in radio ads that ran on Arabic stations Friday night. They called upon former police officers, water technicians and engineers to present their qualifications to U.S. officials.

Hundreds swarmed the U.S. job center Saturday. They brought with them laminated government cards or degrees to prove their education. Some had only lost their jobs when the war began; others hadn't worked in years.

Mukdud Mohammed, 45, lost his job as a police captain in 1995, he said, when Saddam learned that his wife was Kurdish, a disdained ethnic group.

He waited five hours for his interview before he was searched and allowed inside. He hopes he can start working soon so he can support his four children.

Some residents said they were concerned about who the Bush administration picks for top government posts, saying they fear the new regime would comprise mainly Iraqi exiles defending only U.S. interests.

"I hope they don't give power only to people who left Iraq because they did not like Saddam, and now want to come back," said Abdal Taha, a 44-year-old merchant working on Baghdad's Karmada Street. "I hope they give the jobs to people who stayed here."


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Tim Johnson in Washington and Patrick Peterson with the Marines' 4th Amphibious Assault Battalion in Baghdad contributed to this report.)


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

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