St. Petersburg Times
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All semblance of control vanishes

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 12, 2003

KIRKUK, Iraq -- For years Ahmad Mohammad and his younger brother Towfiq avoided the neighborhood around the military intelligence headquarters out of terror. No one but the elite Baath Party commanders and their families were allowed to walk the leafy streets here.

But this week, the two teens traipsed into the compound and made off with helmets, socks, knapsacks, tomato sauce, daggers and whatever other useful and useless souvenirs of the Baghdad regime they could fit into the huge duffel bags they dragged down the street.

"It was forbidden to come here," Ahmad, 21, said. "Only intelligence officers could come here. But today we are free."

The world might view the mostly young men pillaging the cities of northern Iraq as criminals and rogues taking advantage of the breakdown in order to make off with some booty.

But they are also driven by the pentup rage of living under a brutal dictatorship and the joy of being able to enter once-forbidden spaces and seek a measure of revenge against their longtime tormentors.

Talib Muhammad, a taxi driver who toured the huge maze of buildings making up the military intelligence headquarters for northern Iraq, said two of his friends had been taken to this building and disappeared. "Kurdish sons were tortured in this building," he said. "I just wanted to take a look. I just wanted to get a sense of what happened here."

Down the path, teens rummaged through filing cabinets and large books filled with the mundane facts of the lives of officers and prisoners who passed through the drab halls. A young man acting as a tour guide showed the soundproof room where prisoners were interrogated and tortured.

The very geography of Kirkuk illustrates the Baghdad regime's obsession with order and power. Intelligence commanders lived along one row of identical houses. Deputy commanders lived along another, less affluent, row.

With the Baghdad regime gone, so, too have its boundaries and distinctions. A society once known for its tight control has begun to break down. In Kirkuk and Mosul, machine-gun fire punctuates the night and day. Bands of youths carrying sticks or looted Kalashnikovs roam the streets.

A few miles away from the military intelligence base, a colorful swarm of people, young and old, occupied the supply depot of the Republican Guard base, making off with socks, ammunition, T-shirts, sleeping bags, uniforms and tents.

Rebar Omar, a 19-year-old wearing a brand-new camouflage uniform, had managed to find a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. "It's safe as long as there's no ammunition," he said.

Jiran Sami, an 8-year-old girl wearing bright pink pajamas, carried a bag with pillows and a man's shirt. "I'm taking it for my dad," she said.

Authorities are attempting to bring some semblance of order to a society that has suddenly become undone.

"We are not allowing looters to leave with any goods," said Mustafa Qader Ahmad, a harried Kurdish commander manning a crowded checkpoint near the city limits. "We're stopping them all. We're taking all of the stuff back. We need to re-establish some kind of order."

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