Tough choices on mean streets of Baghdad

Many US troops say a shoot-to-kill policy for looters could backfire on efforts to restore order. Some note that the worst of looting may have already passed.

US military officials have never seen anything quite like it: hundreds of men, women, and children swarming into government buildings to pry loose anything that might have value.

As one military officer put it, "They are just like locusts. They swarm and eat a field, and then they swarm again and eat another field."

The US Army has physically protected crucial infrastructure such as power plants and sewage-treatment facilities by posting 24-hour guards, but questions have persisted about whether the Army has been aggressive enough.

US officials, including L. Paul Bremer, the new chief civilian administrator for Iraq, have made a point this week of assuring Iraqis that security is a top security. They've detailed new efforts to restore calm, which included making 92 arrests in Baghdad on Wednesday alone.

Some people have even gone as far as suggesting that American soldiers should be authorized to shoot looters in an effort to quickly restore order. The idea is that once word gets out that US forces will shoot and potentially kill anyone plundering government buildings, the looting will stop.

Although US commanders have said they would not authorize a shoot-to-kill policy, the idea has nevertheless been a topic of discussion and debate among troops. Their experience has been forged in the line of fire in some of Baghdad's grittiest neighborhoods.

According to US Army officials patrolling eastern Baghdad, the most desirable targets for looters have already been picked clean. At the same time, US forces have protected as much crucial infrastructure as possible.

"It's finished. It's done," says Lt. Col. Joel Armstrong, commander of the 2nd Squadron of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR). "And we hold the places we don't want them to loot."

Colonel Armstrong says looting is not the most significant problem in his sector of the city. His primary concern is the organized criminals paying the looters, as well as those carrying out carjackings, abductions, and robberies.

"You have to choose what you want to fight for and let the rest go, even though it is pretty ugly to look at," he says. "We still have the power system and most of the hospitals. The public buildings are gone, but people haven't turned on one another on a large scale."

To many soldiers waging the battle to win the peace, the idea of shooting looters would be counterproductive to the overall US mission in Iraq.

"If we shoot people, it will make it worse for us because we will be making enemies," says Spc. Therron Augustine of Brooklyn, N.Y. "We are trying to be friends with the people, not get them to turn against us."

Lt. William Baird of Kennewick, Wash., says if his commanders issue a lawful order for him to shoot looters, he will shoot them. "But if I can accomplish the same objective by arresting them, I would do it that way," he says.

"These people aren't enemies of the United States. They are just poor people trying to get something for themselves," he says. "I don't think anyone should die just for trying to have a better life."

Sgt. Eric Wetzel of El Paso, Texas, views the issue differently. He says the Iraqis won't stop looting until the US shows it is serious about preventing looting.

"I think the second we shoot the first one for looting, they will all quit," he says. "All we've done to this point is put them in a jail cell and give them free water and food."

There would be significant ethical considerations to any order to shoot looters, military officials say. In a crowd of men, women, and children, how should a soldier pick out the one to kill?

"You'd have to have specific guidelines," says US Air Force Capt. Bryan France of Mobile, Ala., who is attached to the 2nd ACR. "You have an 18-year-old private making this decision, and you have to make it very clear for that private."

Some soldiers suggest the use of rubber bullets to physically punish looters.

Armstrong says looting wasn't the only issue that demanded immediate attention in past weeks. The city was littered with huge quantities of unexploded ordnance and weapons caches, many of them stored in schools. Those threats to public safety have been neutralized.

"The other part of the story is what isn't being looted," Armstrong says. "Normal businesses are functioning, and kids are going to school. It is not as bad as people are making it out to be."

Army officials say there are several kinds of looters targeting government buildings. First are administrative-level looters - those who take what they want from their old place of employment.

Next are opportunists who take anything that is not bolted down or firmly attached to the building.

Third are the heavy-machinery looters - those who probably worked in the facility and were aware of the presence of particular equipment and what is necessary to get it out of the building.

Fourth are those looking for products that can be melted down into raw materials to be sold. This includes copper from pipes and wires and aluminum from door and window frames.

Finally are the bottom feeders - the scavengers who descend upon what remains of a government building, looking for wood to fuel a cooking fire, or building materials to help patch a roof.

Unless US soldiers are posted 24 hours a day outside a government building, Army officials say, all five levels of looters will arrive, frequently at the same time.

Armstrong says the real problem isn't looting, but crime and a lack of employment opportunities.

"What would the United States of America look like," he asks, "if you simultaneously let everyone out of prison and shut down every police force?"

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