| An Iraqi boy wheels away looted goods in Baghdad with American forces watching. (Reuters)
Baghdad, April 11 (Reuters): The Iraqi capital sank deeper into anarchy today as residents went on a looting spree in full view of US forces.
Every town that is falling to the coalition troops has the same story to tell: sack and loot.
In the north, Iraq’s third city of Mosul was taken over by US and Kurdish forces, but crowds went on a looting rampage, stripping public buildings and even schools and torching a central market.
As troops still battled to contain pockets of Iraqi fighters scattered around Baghdad, thousands of ordinary citizens helped themselves to anything they could lay their hands on in shops, factories, schools, hospitals and government buildings.
“Is this your liberation'” one frustrated shopkeeper screamed at the crew of a US tank as a gang of youths snatched everything in his small hardware store and carted the booty off in the wheelbarrows that had also been on sale.
“Hell, it ain’t my job to stop them,” drawled one young Marine, lighting a cigarette as he looked on. “Goddamn Iraqis will steal anything if you let them. Look at them.”
But for those not helping themselves to their new-found freedom, mounting anger was being directed at the US forces for doing nothing to stop the frenzy.
“For God’s sake, how can they just let them do this' This is my life,” one old man cried as a gang used crowbars to remove the security mesh from the Anwar electrical repair shop in the centre and took away dozens of air-conditioners.
US Marines are trained to fight, not police, though an officer denied that they were not capable. “Now we are a little bit out of our comfort zone, but we’re not unprepared or untrained,” Lieutenant-Colonel Jim Chartier, commanding officer of the US Marines’ 1st Tank Battalion, said near Baghdad’s Martyrs’ Monument.
“If I need to provide security for a grocery store so they don’t get robbed, I’ll do it. On the other hand, there’s still people out there who want to kill us, so we can’t let our guard down,” he said.
In the city centre, a Reuters correspondent saw a youth wearing a red baseball cap back-to-front brandishing an AK-47 assault rifle and waiting for a passing car to hijack. He let the journalist go by but shot the driver of the next vehicle, dragged him out and drove away in the truck.
The hospitals were overflowing with civilians injured by what they said was US shelling or firing and at one, the dead were being buried in the garden.
Dozens of corpses lay rotting by roadsides or in cars blown up by US forces as they captured Baghdad.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said: “The medical system in Baghdad has virtually collapsed.”
In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer played down the anarchy. “No one should miss the larger picture here, and that is a horrible regime has been lifted from the Iraqi people,” he said.
“It is a reaction against oppression. It is on the way to liberty and freedom. No one likes to see looting, but that’s the context.”
Britain said it will move to stamp out lawlessness in Basra over the next three days. British forces spokesman Colonel Chris Vernon said: “You’ll see us over the next 72 hours or so begin to change our posture to handle what we call this internal security type of operation.”
British forces shot and killed five men trying to rob a bank who opened fire on them in Basra.
In the first move towards setting up an interim administration, the US said it would convene a meeting of Iraqis on Tuesday.
“We expect this to be the first in a series of regional meetings that will provide a forum for Iraqis to discuss their vision of the future and their ideas regarding the Iraqi interim authority,” a state department spokesman said.
The whereabouts of Saddam Hussein and other former Iraqi leaders were unknown. US commander General Tommy Franks said they were “either dead or running like hell”. US troops had been issued with a list of 55 people to be captured or killed.
Washington said Saddam’s government was gone, but President George W. Bush was not ready to declare victory and would tell Americans tough fighting remains.