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Iraqi residents form armed militias to defend against looters

MOSUL, Iraq—Fearful of marauding gangs of looters, thieves and arsonists, Arab residents in Iraq's third-largest city formed armed militias Sunday in a desperate attempt to protect their homes, shops and families.

In the nearby oil-production center of Kirkuk, there was a marked reduction in violence Sunday after two days of rampaging by Kurdish looters. But bloodshed between Arabs and Kurds flared in the countryside.

In one of the most serious confrontations, an unknown number of Kurdish looters and at least two Kurdish police officers were killed by Arabs in the town of Hawija, 30 miles southwest of Kirkuk.

The Arabs also took 15 Kurdish police officers hostage, said Feraydoon Abdul Qader, the interior minister of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a U.S.-backed Kurdish opposition group.

In Mosul, religious leaders acknowledged the need for neighborhood militias because of the wholesale breakdown of law and order in the city, but the clerics also appealed to residents to put down their weapons in favor of unarmed patrols and roadblocks.

"These people setting up their own private militias and checkpoints are childish and stupid," said Sheikh Badr Al-Hilali, director of Mosul's mosques and religious sites. "Most of them don't even know how to use a gun. They are performing a stage play that's a mockery of law and order. The allies have to stop this."

But the allies here—a couple of hundred Green Berets and Marines—are overwhelmed and overmatched. Mosul is a fractious, ethnically divided city of 2 million people, including large numbers of hard-core Baath Party members and Saddam Hussein loyalists who are angry over the fall of their regime.

"We need thousands of soldiers to properly police this city," said a Kurdish political leader who is working with the U.S. contingent.

To the south, U.S. troops encountered little resistance as they entered Tikrit, Saddam's hometown. U.S. commanders worried that the town might become a stronghold for a last stand by Saddam's loyalists, but there was no sign of that Sunday.

Many experts have warned that ethnic tensions kept in check by Saddam could explode in northern Iraq with the end of his iron-fisted rule.

One bright note occurred outside the Arab farming village of Shahriya, about 35 miles southwest of Kirkuk, with the arrival of a joint patrol of Kurdish police and Arab villagers.

A member of the Kurdish police, Tahir Mohammad Salih, said he wished his unit could "protect all Iraqi peoples so they can live safely and keep their lives and their property."

Salih is a native of Halabja, where 5,000 Kurds died in a 1988 chemical weapons attack by Saddam's forces.

"Because I am from Halabja, I don't want what happened in Halabja to happen again in Iraq," Salih said.

Some of the Arab villagers blamed the lawlessness and Kurd-Arab violence on the Bush administration's failure to deploy sufficient numbers of American troops in the region.

"Americans cannot overthrow the government and then leave the area in this way because this will lead to chaos," chided Mohammad Ahmad Hussein, a Shahriya villager. "It will lead to chaos and enmity between the two sides and is not good for the future."

U.S. troops tried to quell some of the chaos in Mosul, which has been wracked by three days of horrific Kurdish-Arab violence. About 70 people have been killed with countless numbers injured.

The city remained edgy, tense and dangerous over the weekend. Two Army troopers on a patrol late Saturday night were wounded by an unseen sniper, and they were quickly evacuated by helicopter for medical treatment.

Convoys of Green Berets, Marines and members of a new, U.S.-supervised squad of Free Iraqi Fighters made several swings through the city Sunday, large American flags flying high behind their Humvees. Children waved and shouted hello, although most of the men in the Arab neighborhoods looked on warily and unsmiling.

Nearly all municipal services—water, power, police, sanitation—have broken down since the Iraqi army meekly surrendered Thursday night. A frenzy of looting quickly followed as bank vaults were emptied of their cash, government offices were trashed and torched, and luxury hotels were ransacked.

By Sunday, however, the full extent of the looting was becoming clearer and more painful.

The prestigious University of Mosul was wrecked to within an inch of its academic life. The Medical College was robbed of microscopes, medicines and precious lab equipment. The public library lost its oldest volumes, and the archives lost countless historical documents. Hospitals were ripped apart, ambulances hijacked and drug cabinets carried off whole.


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

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