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Treading cautiously amid chaos

©Associated Press

April 12, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Neither Saddam Hussein nor George W. Bush rules Iraq. Lawlessness does.

The people of Baghdad's Karadeh neighborhood, fed up with thievery, have taken the law into their own hands: They grabbed Kalashnikov rifles, set up roadblocks and checked passing cars for stolen goods.

When they found it, they knew what to do. They confiscated the loot, and beat the culprits.

Even law enforcement was anarchic in Iraq on Friday. Unchecked by American and British forces, some Iraqis looted and burned; their neighbors cowered behind barricaded doors and pleaded for intervention to restore civic peace to a country enmeshed in war.

"Tell the Americans to stop the killing and the looting. We can't live like this much longer, with Muslims looting other Muslims," said Jabryah Aziz, 41. "I need to feel safe so I can go and collect my food ration."

But American leaders walked a fine line between alienating Iraqis with an iron fist, or by doing too little to stop the chaos. Their troops tote extraordinarily powerful weaponry in the streets of Iraqi cities, but they hew to rules that they must avoid deadly force against looters.

They insist the chaos is a phase that will pass. In southern Iraq, where coalition forces have been in place for weeks, looting has fallen off, said Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"I think what you're seeing is on the way to freedom, the reaction of the people to oppression," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insisted "we do feel an obligation to assist in providing security, and coalition forces are doing that. Where they see looting, they are stopping it."

"We'll maintain security as well as we can, but we are not a police force," said Col. Steve Hummer, commanding officer of the 7th Marines.

Army Maj. Rumi Nielson-Green, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, said the military can draw on military police and other troops trained in crowd control. She said troops were being shifted around the battlefield to handle policing efforts.

Nielson-Green said members of the Army's 4th Infantry Division -- just arriving in Kuwait, after being denied access to Iraq through Turkey -- could be tapped.

The United States can't ask the old regime's police to take over. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks of the Central Command said when Americans entered Baghdad, they found police were using their radios to call for and adjust fire in support of the regime.

Instead, the military aims to nurture new law enforcement groups. According to a reporter for the Charlotte Observer attached to the 82nd Airborne, paratroopers were taken aback Thursday when they were stopped in Diwaniyah by Iraqis with assault rifles.

But they meant the Americans no harm. Their red armbands identified them as members of a "freedom force," enlisted with local sheiks to serve as police. "Return Iraq back to the Iraqi people -- that's our objective," Col. Arnold Bray told the sheiks.

U.S. forces have declared a curfew from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

In a directive issued Friday, Gen. Tommy Franks, the top military commander, underscored that troops should avoid using deadly force to prevent looting. But that did not preclude the use of such force entirely.

Brooks said five Iraqis were engaged by British forces on Friday as they tried to rob a bank in Basra. Warned to stop, they did not -- and were shot by the British.

"Looting went down a lot in Basra," Brooks said.

-- Information from Scripps Howard News Service was used in this report.

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