Law-and-order challenge for US as it takes Iraqi city
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.