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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 April, 2003, 01:48 GMT 02:48 UK
Basra's looters repent

By Ryan Dilley
BBC News Online in Basra

The chaos which followed the ending of Saddam Hussein's rule caused some ordinary Iraqis to indulge in an orgy of looting.

Teachers at Basra University clear up after looting at the campus
Teachers at Basra University clear up after looting at the campus
Air conditioners, office chairs and even pot plants were carried away on people's backs. As normality returns, some looters are having second thoughts about their booty.

"I kept it at home," says Humam Saleh, motioning toward the trailer which once belonged to a local oil company.

"I had no use for it, but since it belonged to the government of Saddam and was bought with my money, I thought I should try to take it when that government fell."

Mr Saleh has now thought better of his ill-gotten slice of public property and has returned the trailer to his mosque in Basra's Junaina district.

"We were told by the Imam that what we had done was illegal. I now believe my actions in taking the abandoned trailer were wrong."

Many other local people have heeded the proclamation by the mosque's preacher, Seid Ali Seid Hakeem Elmosawi.

Preacher's proclamation

"He decreed that all the items stolen from the government should be brought here. He decreed that it was illegal to steal and keep such things and that the looters would be shunned by other Muslims," says Abdul-Kadhom Hussain, the mosque's caretaker.

"Thousands of people have done as he and other Imams have said."

The yard at the side of the Junaina mosque is slowly filling with a bizarre array of looted items.

Sitting in the hot sun are tins of paint, street lights, desks, electric motors and a sickly yellow three-piece. Behind the mosque's locked gates, sacks of food have been stacked.

"I am so happy to see these things being brought here. A committee is being formed to decide what should be done with them," says Mr Hussain.

The looters were against the last regime, that is why they stole things from the government offices. They were expressing their hatred and venting their anger.
Abdul-Kadhom Hussain
Many of the items can only be destined for the dump. Some fixtures were fatally damaged when they were ripped from their original locations.

A forlorn globe - the place names written in Arabic - is half-melted, perhaps looted from one of the many bombed or razed buildings in the city.

"The looters were against the last regime, that is why they stole things from the government offices. They were expressing their hatred and venting their anger. They were uneducated people, but they were not exactly criminals," says Mr Hussain.

Shelves emptied

Despite the response to the Imam's decree, looting has not yet halted in Basra, and nor is it limited to the stripping of military or government buildings, as Mr Hussain insists.

Several Iraqis were shot by British troops during a savage looting of one of the city's banks. Many shops still remain shuttered, for fear of having their shelves emptied.

Looted items
Much of the returned loot is badly damaged
Ordinary people also complain of having their homes ransacked.

One doctor was burgled while treating the civilians wounded in last week's fighting. A man whose home was hit by an American or British missile - killing much of his family - returned to the ruins to find his remaining possessions stolen.

The British military police - now patrolling the streets with unarmed Iraqi constables - admit that they can do little to crack down on the looters.

"Cars without number plates are probably stolen," says one British officer at a roadblock. "But if no one has reported them missing, we can't prove that they are. Anyway, we have nowhere to impound the things and no prison space for the thieves."

Ending such lawlessness is the main priority of almost every citizen in Basra, something they call for again and again. Even the trailer thief Hamam Saleh is concerned.

"We want security, that is the most important thing."



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