Law-and-order challenge for US as it takes Iraqi city

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Wasdi Jabel, a doctor, thought he had escaped the worst when US bombs flattened his home, next to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party headquarters. His family had fled earlier in the day.

But Thursday, Dr. Jabel woke to a nightmare. The city's main hospital - abandoned 11 hours earlier by US marines who had taken up posts Tuesday night after the rescue of Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch - was under attack from about 20 armed looters. Staff said the men rampaged through, stealing drugs and generators as terrified patients fled.

If Nasiriyah is the future of a liberated Iraq, the anarchic scenes late this week in the municipal buildings and streets of this city of 250,000 suggest the US military could face chaos, at least for a time, as they seize control of large cities. In the absence of the repressive regime of Mr. Hussein, and with US forces focused on securing bridges and continuing a drive toward Baghdad, power is - for now - in the hands of anyone with a gun or grenade who wants it.

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In front of the city hospital, brigands had attacked five new vehicles belonging to staff, leaving them smoldering as they drove off in three new cars they managed to hot-wire.

"They attacked us with grenades and machine guns," said Jabel. "When they couldn't get the keys to a car, they just shot up the gas tank and set it on fire. We tried to stop them, but we were powerless."

Some patients and doctors said the attackers were Bedouins and armed drug addicts. Others argued the men were former prisoners released by the government in a general amnesty late last year.

As a civil-affairs team with a heavy US Marine escort went into the largest city under coalition control in Iraq, residents appeared almost calm as looters carted off anything they could get their hands on. But at Jabel's hospital, the driver of the city's health minister was brought in with multiple gunshot wounds after looters tried to steal his car. They killed him when he resisted, according to his son. He died before the team's eyes as his two sons held him.

Doctors said they had treated 900 injuries in the past two weeks. They said US aerial raids had killed 250 civilians, all of whom had been brought to the hospital. On the hospital floor, family members crowded around patients injured in the last two weeks. Many of them said they had no transport out of the hospital, or would have already fled.

The doctors begged the arriving Marines to post sentries at the hospital to guard against the next attack. "If you abandon us, they will return and take everything," argued Ahmed Moksin. "We hope and pray for security, but we need it as soon as possible."

Listening to the pleas Thursday afternoon, Marine Col. Ron Johnson, the chief of operations in the region, promised immediately to provide a fresh Marine guard around the perimeter of the hospital.

A day earlier, in the wake of the raid on the hospital to extract Ms. Lynch, Marines had been assigned to guard the hospital. Wednesday evening, however, the protection for the hospital was pulled back to the US Marine base camp on the outskirts of the city.

Just hours later, the looters rushed in, taking everything of value except a cache of pharmaceuticals heroically defended by hospital staff.

Though heavily armed US Marines controlled the main bridges in Nasiriyah across the Euphrates, stopping traffic to search for possible suicide bombers, the streets of the city were guarded by no one Thursday. Hundreds of men pushed wheeled carts filled with kitchen sinks, toilets, file cabinets, oil cans, and anything else they could pile on top.

Jabel agreed to drive with two reporters through the city, where US armored vehicles hit in heavy fighting and Iraqi T55 tanks with their turrets blown off could be seen. Dozens of giant billboards with Hussein's beaming face were still intact; locals had desecrated only a few of them.

At the headquarters of Hussein's own Martyrs' Brigade, a picture of masked fighters beneath the Iraqi president was untouched. Inside, however, the US bombing had gutted dozens of armored vehicles.

Though they have ventured out to deal with looters and maintain control of the river crossings, most of the local contingent of the US Marine Expeditionary Force has remained behind the sand berms that enclose their bases at the south end of the city. Commanders require their soldiers to dim their lights at night for fear of rogue attacks from the surrounding countryside.

In a park near the headquarters, residents pointed out a dozen shallow graves where local Shiite Muslims had buried their kin with the hopes of transporting the bodies to the Holy City of Najaf for final burial when the roads north become safer. One home 150 feet from the palm-tree-lined park was destroyed, and residents said that all 12 members of the family had been killed. Residents also said that a total of 50 men, women, and children had died just in their own small neighborhood from errant US munitions in the last two weeks.

Nasiriyah, the scene of heavy clashes on March 23, has seen some of the worst fighting and killing anywhere in Iraq. It is also the first large municipality where US or British forces have full run, and which has been described by US Marine commanders as "liberated."

Skirmishing and guerrilla combat continued here until Tuesday night, when US Marines and Special Forces swept into the heart of this Shiite Muslim-dominated city whose citizens rose up against the Hussein regime in January 1991.

Locals say the regime's henchmen continue to inspire fear in Nasiriyah by promising severe reprisals against anyone who deals with the US Marines. Though US commanders said they suspected that attack on the hospital by armed men yesterday was carried out by sympathizers of Hussein, hospital employees disagreed, possibly out of fear of retribution.

Some Iraqis working with the Marines said the civilian casualties were a small price to pay for the liberation of such a strategic city. "We are here to rid the country of Saddam and the civilian deaths we are seeing, while tragic, are a small price to pay for that," said Mousa al-Mousa, an Iraqi-American from Detroit, Mich., who surrendered to US forces in the last Gulf War and is fighting with them in this one.

"Saddam's men are still hiding out in the North and East side of Nasiriyah," he said. "Fighters run up and empty a magazine, then run away. This is not strong resistance, but residents are still waiting to see what will happen. They want to make sure that the US is going to make good on its promises to liberate the country. When they are 100 percent sure, they will provide us with their full support."

According to Jabal, several workers in the hospital's pharmacy had broken fingers as they strained to keep the looters from breaking down the doors.

In the hospital lobby, teenager Ahmed Hamed and his mother and sisters pleaded for transportation off the grounds, fearing another looting attack. The second floor of the hospital, reportedly flush with dozens of injured patients a day earlier, had been entirely abandoned. On the third floor of the hospital, several patients were being treated for gunshot wounds.

As the humanitarian mission headed back to the Marine base, looters raced through the streets in front of the convoy. At one point, the officer in charge spotted a water truck being driven away by a Bedouin. His men confiscated the vehicle, which was to be used to provide needed drinking water for Nasiriyah.

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