| Looters flee with chairs in the Basra University campus on Monday. (AFP)
Basra, April 7 (Reuters): British paratroopers guarded by tanks and helicopter gunships walked unopposed into the centre of Iraq’s second city of Basra today, meeting a warm reception in the narrow streets of the old quarter.
But on the outskirts of the city, dozens of mainly young men and boys used the breach in control to loot. Using wheelbarrows and trailers, they stole anything they could carry, including office equipment, furniture, and household appliances. One distraught Iraqi said: “They (Brits) have to stop this stealing, they are not doing anything about it”.
British Air Marshal Brian Burridge said looting was almost “an inevitability”.
“There is a release of pent up annoyance and hatred against the Baath Party and the Baath regime but once that safety valve is blown... the business of protecting property becomes easier,” he said.
Walking past the bodies of Iraqi militiamen lying in wasteland on either side of the main road from the south, about 700 British troops armed with automatic weapons entered the city in the early afternoon in single-file columns.
Not a shot was fired as men, women and children came out on the street, some to welcome their new occupiers and others to simply stand and stare.
Four US Cobra helicopters swooped overhead as the troops made their advance to Siyamar Square in the heart of the dilapidated southern city.
Criss-crossed by canals, it was once labelled the “Venice of the East”.
Burridge said British forces were still expecting some resistance from what he described as a “hard core” of Baath Party members loyal to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
“The 3rd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment are in the process now of sweeping the old town in Basra which is a myriad of narrow streets and winding alleys and this has to be done on foot,” Burridge said at war headquarters in Qatar.
But officers on the ground said they were confident the bulk of resistance had been subdued in a raid yesterday involving more than two dozen tanks and armoured personnel carriers.
“This (reception) is more than we could have hoped for. We took part in the raid yesterday and today it’s a completely different city,” said Major Chris Brannigan of the Royal Scots Dragoons Guards, manning a tank at an intersection on the main boulevard, Baghdad Street.
Soldiers took positions along the road, some lying on their bellies facing out towards tumble-down houses and dusty side streets too narrow for tanks.
Most made their way to the main square, and were thronged by locals under a giant portrait of Saddam. “Welcome, welcome, very good!” shouted some. Others begged the troops for water in a city that has been virtually under siege since the war began 19 days ago.
Shouting commands on his radio, paratrooper Dan Worthington said they were unsure whether they would remain in the city. But in London, British defence secretary Geoff Hoon said the troops were there to stay.
Basra residents said they were happy to see the back of Saddam’s fedayeen militia but were wary about the future.
“What will happen now we have no government'” asked 47-year-old Majid Abas. “Will we get water and medical supplies' We are poor, we have nothing.”