Thursday 10 April 2003

Baghdad: the day after

Arson, anarchy, fear, hatred, hysteria, looting, revenge, savagery, suspicion and a suicide bombing

by Robert Fisk in Baghdad

click here to visit his website It was the day of the looter. They trashed the German embassy and hurled the ambassador's desk into the yard. I rescued the European Union flag – flung into a puddle of water outside the visa section – as a mob of middle-aged men, women in chadors and screaming children rifled through the consul's office and hurled Mozart records and German history books from an upper window. The Slovakian embassy was broken into a few hours later.

At the headquarters of Unicef, which has been trying to save and improve the lives of millions of Iraqi children since the 1980s, an army of thieves stormed the building, throwing brand new photocopiers on top of each other and sending cascades of UN files on child diseases, pregnancy death rates and nutrition across the floors.

The Americans may think they have "liberated" Baghdad but the tens of thousands of thieves – they came in families and cruised the city in trucks and cars searching for booty – seem to have a different idea what liberation means.

American control of the city is, at best, tenuous – a fact underlined after several marines were killed last night by a suicide bomber close to the square where a statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down on Wednesday, in the most staged photo-opportunity since Iwo Jima.

Throughout the day, American forces had fought gun battles with Saddam loyalists, said to be fighters from other Arab countries. And, for more than four hours, marines were in firefights at the Imam al-Adham mosque in the Aadhamiya district of central Baghdad after rumours, later proved untrue, that Saddam Hussein and senior members of his regime had taken flight there.

As the occupying power, America is responsible for protecting embassies and UN offices in their area of control but, yesterday, its troops were driving past the German embassy even as looters carted desks and chairs out of the front gate.

It is a scandal, a kind of disease, a mass form of kleptomania that American troops are blithely ignoring. At one intersection of the city, I saw US Marine snipers on the rooftops of high-rise building, scanning the streets for possible suicide bombers while a traffic jam of looters – two of them driving stolen double-decker buses crammed with refrigerators – blocked the highway beneath.

Outside the UN offices, a car slowed down beside me and one of the unshaven, sweating men inside told me in Arabic that it wasn't worth visiting because "we've already taken everything". Understandably, the poor and the oppressed took their revenge on the homes of the men of Saddam's regime who have impoverished and destroyed their lives, sometimes quite literally, for more than two decades.

I watched whole families search through the Tigris-bank home of Ibrahim al-Hassan, Saddam's half-brother and a former minister of interior, of a former defence minister, of Saadun Shakr, one of Saddam's closest security advisers, of Ali Hussein Majid – "Chemical" Ali who gassed the Kurds and was killed last week in Basra – and of Abed Moud, Saddam's private secretary. They came with lorries, container trucks, buses and carts pulled by ill-fed donkeys to make off with the contents of these massive villas.

It also provided a glimpse of the shocking taste in furnishings that senior Baath party members obviously aspired to; cheap pink sofas and richly embroidered chairs, plastic drinks trolleys and priceless Iranian carpets so heavy it took three muscular thieves to carry them. Outside the gutted home of one former minister of interior, a fat man was parading in a stolen top hat, a Dickensian figure who tried to direct the traffic jam of looters outside.

On the Saddam bridge over the Tigris, a thief had driven his lorry of stolen goods at such speed he had crashed into the central concrete reservation and still lay dead at the wheel.

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