BAGHDAD, Iraq—The top U.S. military commander in Iraq said Wednesday that supporters of deposed President Saddam Hussein continued to "intimidate and terrorize" the nation, hampering America's efforts to rebuild the occupied country.
Although rampant street crime in Baghdad keeps residents living in fear, Lt. Gen. David McKiernan said his forces were confronting a "more dangerous" opponent: small but determined groups of opposition fighters using guerrilla tactics to undermine American forces by sabotaging military efforts to get water pumping, electricity flowing and the government running.
"There is still a problem with organized elements against the coalition," McKiernan said.
If the United States can't restore goods, services and security in Baghdad within a month, the American military victory in Iraq may be eclipsed by anarchy, which might prompt some Iraqis to turn to militant Islamic clerics to impose order, two senior U.S. officials said Wednesday.
In an effort to restore order, another senior official in Washington said, U.S. troops in Baghdad soon will begin more foot patrols in the city's streets. The official said no orders had been given to shoot looters on sight or to shoot unarmed Iraqis, which he said would be "a disaster."
"The real key is Baghdad," the official said. "Even if things go badly in the north and the south, if Baghdad can be stabilized, the rest will work out. But if things go badly in Baghdad, it won't matter if they go well everywhere else."
The official, who like the others spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said the two main U.S. units in the Iraqi capital, the 3rd and 4th Infantry Divisions, and the 1st Armored Division, which is arriving from Germany, were all better equipped for tank warfare than for policing cities.
The official said more U.S. military police would be sent to Iraq and added that Pentagon officials were beginning to consider replacing the heavy divisions in Baghdad with light infantry units or Marines better suited to the job of maintaining order.
McKiernan and Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, the commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, downplayed reports that they were giving soldiers more leeway to shoot looters as a way to send a strong signal that they were cracking down on street crime.
"We are aggressively targeting looters, but we're not going to go out and shoot children that are picking up a piece of wood out of a factory and carrying it away," Blount said.
Even so, Blount vowed that his forces would "aggressively go after looters" in the coming days. "You will see less looting," he said.
Adnan Pachachi, a prominent leader of the opposition Iraqi Independent Democrats Movement, will insist on security improvements and a restoration of basic services when he meets with L. Paul Bremer, the new civilian administrator of the U.S.-led Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, according to Saad al Bazzaz, a Pachachi spokesman.
Pachachi, whose first public appearance in Baghdad was a news conference Wednesday, expects to meet Thursday or Friday with Bremer, al Bazzaz said. Pachachi, a Sunni Muslim and a former foreign minister, had been in exile almost 30 years, and is considered one of the potential leaders of a new Iraqi government.
Since American forces overthrew Saddam last month, military leaders around Iraq have reported possible sabotage or looting at power plants, natural gas pipelines, water treatment facilities and warehouses.
While some military officials have downplayed such attacks as isolated crimes, McKiernan suggested that such incidents might be the work of an organized Iraqi resistance trying to undercut America's efforts to create a new government.
In raising concerns about Saddam loyalists, McKiernan downplayed the persistent looting, carjackings and robberies that have created a pervasive sense of anxiety in Baghdad.
But with the capital police force still in disarray and soldiers unable to deal with the scope of the problem, looting appears to be on the rise across the city.
In one incident Tuesday, a small group of soldiers fired colored smoke into a government high-rise that had been decimated by American bombing and Iraqi looting. One soldier said he often saw the same looters within hours of arresting them because neither the police nor the military had the ability to hold them long.
To deal with that problem, McKiernan vowed to put 2,000 more military police on the streets and said looters who had been released within hours now would be held for nearly three weeks.
But getting the problem under control, he said, would require more than boosting the number of police and soldiers on the streets. It will require setting up a new government, getting people back to work and turning the power back on.
As if to underscore the challenges that remain, McKiernan was cast into darkness for 20 minutes in the middle of his news conference.
(John Walcott reported from Washington; Knight Ridder correspondent Maureen Fan contributed to this report from Baghdad.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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