"My house has been robbed, my city is destroyed, we have no future," Saad Salah, an Iraqi lawyer, screamed at US Marine Maj. David Cooper Sunday morning in a central square of Baghdad. "If you don't offer us security we will hate you."
A week after US troops entered Baghdad in force, ousting Saddam Hussein's regime, the violent looting that has gutted government offices, shops, and homes here is leaving even citizens who welcomed the Americans increasingly bitter at their failure to impose order.
If law and order aren't reestablished quickly, the risk rises that the many Iraqi factions - the Baathists or other political, ethnic, and religious groups - could step in to establish their own fiefdoms of control in Iraq.
US soldiers here understand the frustration. "I won't discount what he is saying," Major Cooper, a civil-affairs officer, said after trying to reassure Mr. Salah. "This is exactly the sort of problem we are afraid of if we don't meet his concerns."
Iraq has so far been spared the carnage of ethnic cleansing and revenge killings of former ruling Baath Party officials that some had feared. But the manner in which American soldiers have stood aside as looters empty every building they can get into has sparked fears that the prevailing atmosphere of lawlessness could degenerate into even worse violence.
US troops say they do not have enough men in the capital to keep order: that they are trained for combat, not police work, and that they are still fighting pockets of resistance, their top priority.
Sunday, an exiled Iraqi opposition leader with the Iraqi National Congress, Mohammed Mehsin, announced that he was taking charge of Baghdad, with the blessing of the US authorities. One of the Hussein regime's top police officers, Brig. Zuheir Anuaimi, was also named the new chief of the city police.
Mixed patrols of US soldiers and Iraqi policemen who are being encouraged to return to work should be on the streets by Monday, Mr. Mehsin said.
In the meantime, many Baghdadis are taking the law into their own hands, defending their property with guns the former regime gave to loyalists. The city crackles with the sound of scattered gunfire day and night as plumes of smoke rise from burning buildings.
In the wealthy district of Mansour, home to many former officials, Yarub al-Sadoon was organizing a vigilante squad Saturday. "We are all Baathists at heart," he said, interrupting a conversation to fire off a few rounds at a band of armed marauders. "None of the thieves is brave as a rule. There are aircraft above us but no one is helping us.
"What we'd really like is a deal between the American and Iraqi forces, an agreement to protect the area," he said.
An isolated deal of that sort was struck Saturday in northwest Baghdad, after heart surgeon Emad Mohamed complained to a visitor that the looters were worse than the three weeks' of bombardment that his city had suffered.
"We would love to have Saddam Hussein back," Dr. Mohamed said angrily. "He's the only one who can control these mobs. Tell that to the Americans."
A little later, US Army Capt. John Billmyer, the task force intelligence officer for the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, shook his head when he heard how the looting was causing such despair. He had just received orders to secure some of the hospitals in his sector. But neither he nor his commanding officer - using single-sheet city maps - knew where the hospitals were.
Accepting a suggestion that he visit Dr. Mohamed, Captain Billmyer led two Humvees and a Bradley fighting vehicle through streets littered with the debris of war to the doctor's house. Leaning over a map on the hood of the Humvee, the surgeon told the helmeted American where to find his new targets for protection - and the state of the facilities. His own cardiac center was closed by "your people," he told Billmyer. "When they bombed, the operating room collapsed."
"We hate to see this, it belongs to the people, even the palaces - they are ours. We hate to see them looted," Dr. Mohamed explained, reminding the captain that the Geneva Conventions require occupying forces to protect property and maintain order.
Low troop numbers had until Saturday made preventing such looting difficult, the captain replied. "We want to be your friend. We don't want any civilians and unarmed people harmed. Americans respect human life. But we are combat soldiers."
After waiting for another armored vehicle as backup, Captain Billmyer followed as Dr. Mohamed led the way to the 200-bed Al-Karkh Hospital, riding in a journalist's vehicle. His arrival was greeted by looks of disbelief from the Iraqi hospital staff, who had armed themselves to fend off looters.
Packing a pistol in his belt, deputy administrator Mohamed Sami stepped outside. The hospital had been full throughout the bombing, he reported. All but seven patients had fled in the face of repeated waves of looters over the past few days.
"I am a doctor and a soldier now," said chief resident Mohamed Hamid, a Kalashnikov assault rifle slung over his blue operating gown.
At other hospitals, the doctors said, patients have been forced at gunpoint from their beds. At Yarmouk hospital, doctors' cars were stolen. Of the 70 ambulances based at al-Karkh - the central ambulance depot for the city - 50 had been hijacked, some as they carried emergency patients, sirens wailing.
The Americans promised to begin stopping all ambulances, to check ownership. Billmyer also organized a detail to secure this hospital, before visiting several others. New coordinates for five local hospitals had been gleaned by Billmyer's headquarters from "fire support graphics" normally used for targeting purposes. They matched the locations given by Dr. Mohamed.
"I know Iraqis, and they will get worse and worse, and more aggressive," said hospital chief Omar al-Azzawi, who offered tea, Pepsi, and bread to the Americans in his office, when it was clear that the hospital would remain secure. "You must show force, and show them law and order - they respect that.
"It is too late," Dr. Hamid said, noting that already much of Baghdad's infrastructure had been looted, before the hospitals, at least, became a US priority. "But just come, please!"