'Liberated' city where looters run wild and death stalks the streets

Andrew Buncombe in Nasiriyah

04 April 2003

The third floor of the Saddam Hospital in Nasiriyah is not a place to linger. The corridor floors are filthy with water and grime, the plastic cover sheets on the beds are smeared with blood. The thick air tastes of decay and excrement, and it is all one can do not to retch.

In the last ward on the right lies a student called Haider Mohammed, who has lost the lower part of both legs in an American bombing raid. Flies crawl over his bandaged stumps. "He is saying how much pain he is in how it stops him sleeping at night," said Dr Ahmed Jassin, as the young man gesticulated with a hand on which most of the fingers had been severed by shrapnel. "His two brothers, who were also in his house when the bomb fell, were killed."

Nasiriyah is a city of suffering. After some of the most intense and bloody fighting yet of this war, the United States has now declared this city of up to 300,000 people in its control the largest city in Iraq to have been "liberated". Liberation has come at a price of undoubted suffering for the people of this settlement on the Euphrates: doctors claim that up to 250 people were killed by US air strikes or artillery attacks, and that up to 1,000 were injured.

And it is not as though the Allied victory is complete. While much of the Iraqi army and Fedayeen militia may have been destroyed or forced underground, the city has been given over to lawlessness and looting. Yesterday, the Saddam Hospital itself was pillaged by a gang of 20 armed looters, who made off with a haul of drugs. They even looted several of the hospital's ambulances.

Later, when The Independent was one of the first newspapers to enter Nasiriyah, a man was rushed into the hospital with gunshot wounds, having tried to resist looters who wanted his car. He died in the lobby just as a visiting US Marine general arrived, promising to restore guards he had withdrawn the previous evening.

"They had machine-guns and grenades," said another doctor, Wasdi Jabel. "They made off with three new cars and set fire to some others."

Even in daylight, the streets of Nasiriyah are unsafe. Looters line every road, pushing carts laden with all manner of stolen items furniture, household appliances, jerry-cans and pieces of wood. They do so casually, joyously, as if they are aware that with Saddam Hussein's regime ousted and the US Marines unable to police the entire city, there is no one to stop them. They wave as you pass.

This could be the greatest challenge for the Allied forces. They have pushed north quickly, and many of the towns they have passed remain at best unstable. How best to police these cities without appearing as an occupying force appears to be something about which the Americans are unclear.

In Nasiriyah the Allies had expected that the Shia population would put up little resistance, even rising up against the regime. That has not been the case, and even now most of the ubiquitous murals and paintings of President Saddam in the city remain undamaged.

"People do not like Saddam, but they do not want a colonising army," said one young man, who asked not be named. "In the area where I live there was an older man, a retired soldier ... When he heard the Americans were coming he went and got his gun. When people asked why, he said it was because he did not want to be invaded."

The streets of Nasiriyah are littered with the evidence of the struggle that raged for 10 days. Along the main roads, strewn with rubble and cartridge shells, lie burnt-out Iraqi armour and T-55 tanks, destroyed by the US forces as they advanced through the city.

There are also the upturned remains of at least two US vehicles, the result of an ambush on logistical support personnel. Many of those are still missing, and up to 20 troops were killed in the fight for Nasiriyah.

Jessica Lynch, the 19-year-old prisoner seized by the Iraqis, was rescued earlier this week from a ward in the Saddam Hospital. Doctors showed the room yesterday in which she had been kept the cleanest in the hospital.

The Americans claim they took great care in hitting their targets. But a number of civilian buildings were hit what is clear is that many civilians were hurt. Assessing exactly how many is impossible.

Doctors claimed that up to 250 people had died and that many had been temporarily buried in a park in the city, waiting to be interred in the holy city of Najaf when the road became safer. But a visit to the park revealed just 12 shallow graves, though local people said that up to 50 people in that area had been killed in bombing attacks.

What is clear is that Nasiriyah is neither safe nor secure. If this is an example of how the war will unfold in other cities throughout Iraq, it does not bode well.

2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd

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