On The Ground,'They Are Getting Their Own Back'

At the Basra Teaching Hospital, the flow of patients spikes after dark. They come mostly in tattered orange-and-white taxis. Guards stop even the emergency cases at the gates, well away from the building. Doctors run out to meet them--to make sure they're really patients. From the roof of the ninth floor, British snipers watch through night-vision scopes, ready to shoot. Sometimes there's a sharp crack from one of their long, heavy carbines, and the pavement explodes near the feet of looters. The soldiers are trying not to kill anyone, but gangs have already rampaged through two of the --city's hospitals, including the main maternity ward.

Upstairs, the medical staff beds down on cots meant for patients' families. They run to the windows every time a new fire fight breaks the quiet of a city mostly without electricity. The Iraqis aren't shooting at Coalition troops any longer; they're shooting each other, in self-defense, or to loot choice homes or businesses. More taxis show up at the gate, and shouting erupts; this time it's armed men who claim to be visiting family members. A sniper gets on his radio and calls his company's CO: "Permission to fire, sir?" But hospital guards armed only with ax handles face them down, and they leave. This time.

That's what it was like at the safest place in downtown Basra last week. Elsewhere, the Sheraton Hotel on the Shatt al Arab waterway burned as looters and vandals worked through hundreds of rooms, setting one fire after another. A Coalition missile lay in the hotel swimming pool, undetonated, while children played in the rubble nearby. A mob descended on the central bank's offices and broke into the vault while a patrol of soldiers fired warning shots, to little avail. One man, Muhammed Sakr, 29, managed to break into the vault, taking millions of Iraqi dinars, which, at current exchange rates, would get him several hundred dollars. "I robbed the bank and the money was mine," he said. "But then my friends got angry and wanted the money." One of them stabbed him in the back and made off with it.

All over town, people slept by their front doors and never left their homes unattended. Even in daylight, rampaging crowds picked their way through nearly every public building and institution. Only Saddam's complex of four palaces escaped looting, since the Brits made it their encampment.

Defeating Iraq may prove easier than pacifying it. Coalition troops are stretched too thin to replace all the police who fled their jobs. Only 2,000 to 3,000 British soldiers are in Basra, home to 1.2 million people. And they have no orders to shoot looters. "In a way, you can't blame them," one British major said. "They feel like they are finally getting their own back." The disorder was so great that few humanitarian organizations have dared to start work; only the Red Cross is active in Basra, with the exception of small Kuwaiti groups who race in, drop their aid and run.

Just down the street from the Red Cross headquarters, Sadiq Mohammed Jassim stood holding his little girl's hand while he watched his 9-year-old son's school burn, set ablaze by vandals. "Why don't the British go ahead and shoot them?" he said. So gentle has the occupation been so far that the Brits haven't even imposed a curfew at night. Looting costs not only property but lives; 10 of the 80 wounded brought to the teaching hospital last week died.

The Brits moved quickly to find and identify an interim mayor. They chose a retired general from Saddam's Army, Muzahim Kanan al-Tamimi, the leader of the region's largest Shiite tribe. Though he had been a Baath Party member, as any prominent person would have to be, British officials said they checked and believed he would be widely accepted. Al-Tamimi's tribe was considered antiregime, unlike others. Yet the Brits tried to keep the sheik's identity secret until a new civil administration could be put in place, and with good reason. When NEWSWEEK and a few other news organizations showed up at the secret sheik's house, a crowd soon gathered, chanting, "No, no, Baathists, no, no, Muzahim." They began stoning the building and any journalists who tried to leave. Inside, 40 tribal leaders had gathered; they denounced those outside as rivals from an infamously pro-Baathist tribe, the Saddoun. British troops came to restore order, but couldn't until a local Shiite imam, Sayid Naim Musawi, took a bullhorn and promised the crowd that the British would listen to their views.

Later the same day, a protest was called in the Shiite slum of al-Hiyaniyah. Marchers carried the green-and-white banners of the pro-Iranian Shiite leader, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim, and even hoisted photos of Ayatollah Khomeini. When Western journalists showed up, a mob chased and stoned their cars. The protesters were chanting slogans denouncing both Baathist oppression and British occupation. Restoring order in the Iraqi Shiite heartland will take a lot more, it seems, than troops with good intentions.