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Last Updated:  Tuesday, 8 April, 2003, 18:30 GMT 19:30 UK
UK troops urged to police Basra
By Tim Butcher
In Basra

British troops in Basra are facing growing criticism from local people for failing to stop the wave of looting and theft which threatens to set back coalition forces' attempts to win Iraqi civilian support for the invasion.

"The British said they have come to liberate us but now I cannot sleep safely in my bed because these robbers have said they will kill us and take all of our house," said a woman whose home lay 50 yards from a UK military base.

"Under Saddam I could sleep safe in my bed but not any more."

Irish Guards stop looters getting at aid
Irish Guards guard aid in Basra
She pointed to the other side of the street where a gang of young men were systematically stripping everything from a building.

They took away doors, light fittings, flooring and just about everything they could prise free.

A Royal Marine watched helpless from a nearby checkpoint. He said he had reported the incident but was told by his commanders there was not enough manpower to deal with every incident of looting.

All over the city fires sprang up intermittently as government buildings, hotels, police stations and some houses were systematically robbed and then torched.

Acrid black smoke drifted across much of the city.

Security phase

Lieutenant Colonel Ben Curry is spokesman for 3 Commando Brigade which is now responsible for much of eastern Basra.

He said: "It is just two days since we arrived in Basra and there are still pockets of military resistance in the area, so we are still very much in the 'fighting phase' of our operation to liberate Iraq.

Two Iraqis with a tricycle loaded with furniture
British troops have met a polite response, but civil disorder, in Basra
"When that phase has passed we will be able to focus more on the security situation but the plan is for a civilian police force to be created as soon as possible to deal with the issue.

"But the primary role of our soldiers is as combat troops not police."

All day long Iraqi civilians came to the main Royal Marine base in Basra's former presidential palace, to petition British soldiers to stop the thieving and looting.

They were all critical of what they saw as a lack of willingness by the British troops to become involved.

With all of Basra's police either fled north to Baghdad or in hiding, Iraq's second city remains in a vacuum with no clear sense of law and order.

Burned-out wreck

British Challenger 2 tanks, which are now to be found dotted all over the city, are fantastic war machines but as tools of civil control they are less subtle.

On Tuesday one was parked across a main road leading to the labyrinthine Old Town of Basra but that did not stop robbers from slipping down side-alleys to wreak havoc.

Some of the scenes were almost comic, with the grand piano from the Sheraton Hotel last seen doing 3mph down the road alongside the Shatt al-Arab waterway, being pushed by three industrious thieves.

The hotel was a burned-out wreck by mid-morning with looters drawing up outside on donkey carts to take away carpets and fittings from the once luxurious building.

One patrol of British troops jumped out of their Warrior armoured cars in front of a crowd at one point but without translators it was difficult to understand whether the crowd was criminal or simply boisterous.

A man pulled open the window of a passing Army Land Rover, sweating profusely and waving a wad of red dinar notes, shouting something incomprehensible.

Empty jails

Saddam Hussein's supporters were accused of being behind some of the lawlessness, deliberately fomenting dissent to undermine the Allied mission in Iraq.

"The Baathists want this and we know they are behind it," said one man too scared to have his name published.

"They opened the prisons before the British arrived and these bad men are now all around the city."

One man who spent four years in jail for conspiracy to import heroin from Iran was keen to settle old scores.

He drove into a police car pound to find his old family car that had been confiscated by Saddam's police.

It was still there, although it was in the process of being stripped of all parts by a local car thief.

  • This is a pooled report from Tim Butcher, of the Daily Telegraph, in Basra.

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