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Last Updated:  Friday, 11 April, 2003, 14:00 GMT 15:00 UK
Law and disorder in Iraq

By Ryan Dilley
BBC News Online, in Safwan

Soldiers in Safwan early in the war
Troops swept in on day one
Many Iraqi towns invaded by US-led forces have witnessed an orgy of looting in the wake of the fighting. How quickly can law and order be restored? BBC News Online visits Safwan, captured on the first day of the war, but unstable for weeks after.

"The strong man takes everything from the weak man," says a Basra resident who has come the few miles south of Safwan to escape the chaos in his own city.

The man - who will not give his name for fear that Saddam Hussein might still return to power with a vengeance as he did in 1991 - had to catch a lift to this dirt poor community hard against the Kuwait border.

"My car was stolen. Civilians with guns stopped me while I was driving home and took it. Such things happened before the war, the Iraqi government couldn't stop it, but it is worse now."

Invading US Marines swept through this town on the first day of the conflict, barely giving its ramshackle shops and houses or the unburied bodies of the Iraqi dead a backward glance. Nor did they stop to confiscate weapons.

In the invasion's wake, surviving Iraqi soldiers and Baathists took off their uniforms to blend in with an already well armed civilian population. It is little surprise then that this first toehold of US-led forces on Iraqi soil soon became notorious as "bandit country".

26 March aid convoy
Aid distribution became a near-riot
On 26 March, journalists were bussed in to Safwan to watch the distribution of aid from the Kuwaiti Red Crescent. The convoy was supposed to signal that ordinary families were being provided for after years of tough economic sanctions and days of war.

The lorries were pounced on by young, fit men and stripped of their contents in minutes - some chanting support for Saddam. The scene was later described by the Red Crescent as a "disaster". The following day, Safwan was deemed too dangerous for reporters to return to.

Inside the town, patrolling Royal Air Force troops found the reception equally inhospitable. "Normal people were screaming at us, threatening to kill us and slit our throats," says Sergeant Dave Martin.

When RAF doctor Squadron Leader Simon Chapple visited Safwan's rundown hospital "to chat with a very angry mob", he found the main concern was not clean water (the doctor has not treated cases of dehydration or illnesses caused by waterborne bugs), but an end to the lawlessness gripping their community.

Loud minority

Many Iraqi police officers were arrested by the invading forces. With them gone, Ghassab Attar says looting was rife in his town. "There were mobs behaving like animals. They stole here and also went to Basra to loot there too. Chaos and disorder encourages such people, and war brings disorder."

Images from the captured Iraqi town of Safwan by BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley

The audacity of some looters shocked even the combat troops guarding the town. A couple of local farmers were stopped at a road block in two brand new fire engines they had taken from a chemical plant in Basra.

Mr Attar says such a situation is not to the liking of the majority in Safwan. "Why do I not go to steal? It is not in my disposition. I am like most people here. We are good, nice people."

Unfortunately there is little for good, nice people to do in Safwan to make an honest living. One garage owner delivers a furious tirade about the lack of electricity crippling his business, as he battles to remove a car tyre from its wheel hub by hand.

The only other signs of commerce are two tiny street stalls selling cigarettes of dubious origin and people trying to swap handfuls of Iraqi dinars with the British for US dollars - the local currency is now worthless except for its souvenir value.

Military presence

Looting has diminished with increased RAF patrols and the arrival of British military police, but some soldiers suspect this is only because there is little of any worth left to steal, and that nearby Basra is a more tempting target.

Boys fight over food
Boys fight over much-needed food
But many locals admit that law and order has improved significantly as they have begun to co-operate the soldiers now occupying their town. Aside from tipping off the British to the whereabouts of Baathist loyalists and their arms caches, the troops are now being asked to help in more ordinary matters.

One battered woman pleaded for protection from her abusive husband. When soldiers intervened, they found the man was also in possession of an AK47 rifle.

Iraq has a culture of gun ownership, so taking these weapons out of circulation is a top priority to ending the lawlessness which now blights the country.

"We've made it clear that people carrying around AK47s in their cars will be arrested," says Sergeant Martin. "If they're actually holding them, they risk being killed."

Safwan is certainly no longer the "bandit country" described by several sets of journalists, who visited in the war's first days and drove away under a hail of stones, their windscreens smashed.

However, the total return to peace is not yet complete. As a lump on my own head proves, some in Safwan remain outside the law and remarkably good at hitting moving targets.


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