US troops 'encouraged' Iraqi looters

by Jonathan Duffy (BBC News Online, in Nasiriya, 6 May 2003)


General Tommy Franks is threatened with a Belgian war crimes trial alleging US troops failed to prevent looting in Iraq. BBC News Online uncovers evidence suggesting his soldiers even egged on some looters.

Studies at Nasiriya's Technical Institute are on hold. With the city struggling to find its feet after the war, college is the last thing on people's mind.

Perhaps it's just as well. As Saddam Hussein's army fled the southern Iraqi city and the American forces moved in, looters stripped this higher education college. Today it is a shell; laboratories and lecture rooms are a charred shadow of their former selves.

Yet unlike many of the incidents of post-war pillaging, this one was easily preventable, says the institute's acting dean, Dr Khalid Majeed.

When the college called on the patrolling US forces to help, not only did they refuse, some eyewitnesses allege the troops even encouraged the looters to storm the campus.

The US has not denied the incident took place, but says protecting colleges was not its responsibility.

Baying crowd

Dr Majeed, a community health lecturer at the college, was at the institute on the day when hundreds of baying looters gathered outside.

There was upheaval in Nasiriya at the time. Water and electricity supplies had stopped, the police force had scattered and thieves had emptied many properties.

The date was Tuesday, 8 April, although Dr Majeed can only remember it as the day before Baghdad fell.

"[The crowd] had their faces covered, carried knives and Kalashnikovs. They were shouting, saying 'We need everything from this college'," says Dr Majeed, standing at the spot where the crowds had massed.

The college had its own guard of about seven people, who were behind the low wall on the south side of the campus. About three of them were armed, says Dr Majeed.

He realised these guards were no match for the crowds.

"I went to an American checkpoint at the college of science and said weneeded help, people wanted to steal from our institute. They said they couldn't help because their job was only to serve the checkpoint.

"So I walked to the bridge and asked the Americans there for help. But they couldn't help."

Meanwhile, says Dr Majeed, a colleague had roused some Americans based near the local fire station

They arrived in five vehicles, but refused to ward off the looters. Instead, the soldiers fired several dozen rounds at the college's south wall, says Dr Majeed.

'Green light' to looters

"It was a green light to the looters. It told them 'We are not going to do anything to stop you.'"

Within five minutes the Americans had gone, and the looters had moved in.

An engineering lecturer at the college, Najah Rustin, was across the road when the trouble began. He dashed to the scene, where he found his father remonstrating with the soldiers.

"Someone had told the Americans that maybe the [college] guards were Baathists. My father speaks English and he said 'No, they are not Baathists, they are lecturers,'" says Mr Rustin.

Mr Rustin's father backs up his son's account. "I told them the institute must be saved from the thieves, but they said 'We are soldiers. This isn't our work. Our work is only to fight.'"

Ali Thowani, 27, a pharmacist and former student of the institute, also tried reasoning with the Americans in English.

"I spoke to the Americans and they refused to protect the institution. 'We're not police and that's not our job,' they said."

More worrying still are the accounts of two eyewitnesses who claim to have seen the Americans encouraging the looters.

Troops 'waved' looters on

Rasool Abdul-Husayn , an unemployed school teacher, says he saw one American signalling the crowd to move in, with a repeated wave of the arm. Another eyewitness, Kareem Khattar, who works in a bread shop across the road from the college, saw the same thing.

"I saw with my own eyes the Americans signal the people to move in and the looters started clapping," says Mr Khattar.

"The Americans waved bye-bye and the looters were clapping. They started looting quickly and when one man came out with an air conditioner an American said to him 'Good, very good'."

Before the war, Nasiriya's technical institute had 2,500 students and taught community health, mechanical and electrical engineering and computing, among other subjects.

Every bit of hard work that went into building up the college, which opened in the early 1980s, was swiftly destroyed. About 100 air conditioning units and 100 computers were stolen. Rooms were torched; the science laboratories wrecked; the main lecture hall looks like a hurricane has passed through it.

A campus wrecked

In the old administrative block, ring binders lie on the floor, next to shards of broken glass, buckled filing cabinets and broken plant pots. Everything, even the light switches, was taken or destroyed, and it is the same in every one of the campus buildings.

In a statement to BBC News Online, Centcom, the United States Central Command in Doha, Qatar, refused to accept responsibility for the event.

"The fact that the looting is happening in Nasiriya is a sad event. However, coalition forces are not a police force. Coalition forces have no orders to protect universities. They have orders to protect places of interest such as hospitals, museums and banks.

"Iraqis need to protect their own cities; coalition forces will help the Iraqi people police themselves. For example, in Al Kut - where people are cooperating with coalition forces - they have stood up a city police force. The coalition has even provided arms for the local police force. Iraqis will run Iraq and they will govern themselves. "

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