Baghdad, April 10 (Reuters): Gangs of looters roamed the streets of Baghdad today, ransacking offices and government buildings with US troops standing by as the amazing collapse of Saddam Hussein created a power vacuum.
In central Baghdad, a suicide bomber killed “some” American soldiers at a military checkpoint in a grim reminder that the war could continue way after the battle is won. Marine officer Matt Baker said: “Some are dead in the attack but I don’t know how many.”
A day after Saddam’s statue was brought down by US troops and Iraqis, who later danced on it, signalling what is being described as the liberation of the country from despotic rule, the lawlessness on the streets tempered the jubilation, highlighting the urgency of establishing the rule of law.
The US plans to run Iraq for at least six months through the authority of military commander General Tommy Franks. A civil administration headed by retired General Jay Garner will report to him, helped by an interim Iraqi authority.
But none of this has yet happened, prompting UN secretary-general Kofi Annan to comment: “It appears there is no functioning government in Iraq at the moment.”
Under international law, the responsibility for maintaining order rests with the invading US-led forces once they have taken control, he said.
President George W. Bush promised Iraqis that they would get back their country when Saddam’s die-hards are gone and that the US occupation would last until Iraq has a new government.
“We will help you build a peaceful and representative government that protects the rights of all citizens. And then our military forces will leave. Iraq will go forward as a unified, independent and sovereign nation that has regained a respected place in the world,” Bush said in a taped video message to the Iraqi people.
It was broadcast from a plane flying over Iraq on a new Arabic TV network, produced by the US and UK governments, called Nahwa Al-Hurrieh or “Towards Freedom”, as the coalition quickly assembled its propaganda machine.
US Marines fought a fierce four-hour battle at a Baghdad mosque where senior Iraqi leaders were suspected to be holed up. US military officials said one Marine was killed and more than 20 wounded north of the city centre in the battle around the Imam al-Adham Mosque and a nearby presidential palace.
“We had information that a group of regime leadership was attempting to organise...a meeting,” said Captain Frank Thorp, US military spokesman.
In the north, Kurdish guerrillas seized control of the oil city of Kirkuk from Saddam’s forces.
Looting continued for the second day in Baghdad as marauding mobs targeted members of Saddam’s regime.
Pillagers drove tractors, pick-up trucks and trailers — and even a large bus — up to a large villa belonging to Tariq Aziz, Saddam’s deputy prime minister.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said even hospitals were not spared. “There are lots of people carrying weapons around and they make it very difficult for civilians in need of medical care to reach the hospitals,” a spokesman said.
Faced with an urgent need to stop lawlessness, the US and Britain are keen to find Iraqis who can share responsibility.
The race is on among Iraqi factions to fill the political vacuum, with the US defence department giving its favourite exile, Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress, a headstart over his many rivals and detractors.