Checkpoint Baghdad

As the Looters Run Out of Loot, Layers of Disaster Remain

There is a signal in Baghdad's latest noise, order emerging from the apocalyptic spectacle of looters, Kalashnikov-wielding gangs, and raging industrial fires. Tomorrow, limited phone service will be restored. Former policemen have been called back to their jobs, and today, their white-and-blue patrol cars were seen racing around the city. But residents do not yet call this order, and ask angrily why the Americans stood by while the city burned. Some go a step further, suggesting that the visiting army has orchestrated the maelstrom, maybe with the help of Kuwaitis looking for revenge. The motives for such a strategy by the Americans remain unarticulated. But away from the crushed, gutted remnants of the state and the emptied palatial homes of departed Iraqi officialdom, there are signs that Baghdadis, kicked violently into a void, will be helping themselves for the time being.

At the checkpoints scattered throughout the capital, makeshift neighborhood watch groups have emerged, warning would-be thieves from venturing into private homes. They are not really checkpoints, but lines of cinder blocks, branches, sandbags, or just aluminum cans laid across the entrances to local roads. At one, in Al Arasat, Imad Alouse and his friends guard their middle-class neighborhood from those who man the passing trucks full of stacked-up stolen goods, with enough room for a just a bit more.

"The thieves have come from the neighborhoods that have . . . " Alouse searches for a way around the word poor. "From the neighborhoods that have lost their dignity and honor." He works in the furniture business, and had big plans to start his own restaurant, which for the time being he has abandoned. One of the men gathered around him has fashioned his own patrol uniform, an over-sized blue jumpsuit held bunched around his frame by a leather belt, into which he has stuffed a pistol and a handful of bullets. They haven't had to shoot anyone yet. The little pistol has been, so far, deterrent enough.

Villagers in Shoala, a Shiite community northwest of Baghdad, take fuel from government stores located by residents.
photo: Kael Alford
Villagers in Shoala, a Shiite community northwest of Baghdad, take fuel from government stores located by residents.

"The regime was a disaster for us," says Alouse. "And when they went, it was a disaster. And now the Americans have come, and this is a disaster." Alouse says he is especially heartbroken at the news that the Iraqi National Museum had been looted, which he also called a disaster.

And these checkpoints, which have appeared all over residential Baghdad, seem to be working, at least as long, residents say, as there are valuables in commercial centers, which today remain unguarded.

Shoala, a mostly Shiite neighborhood north of Baghdad's center, is still full of Iraqi military equipment, including a large number of burned-out or abandoned tanks, and a gaggle of big artillery guns, one of which marks the corner post of a sandy soccer field. Two games are going at once, and these kids, like their counterparts worldwide, wear the colors of the superstars from Italy, Brazil, and Argentina.

Half a mile away, a Shiite demonstration winds its way down a now shuttered shopping street, against the thundering backdrop of exploding ammunition in a nearby park. This is the neighborhood of Sheikh Abdul Hadi Al Hadawi, and he is finding ways to bring life back to normal.

Three days ago, to prevent a stampede for badly needed gasoline, he started distributing petrol coupons at his mosque. Several large tanks of the stuff were found and placed in a fenced-off sandlot nearby. A man with an AK-47 takes the coupons, which bear the sheikh's powder blue seal. They are for anyone who asks, he says, but everyone interviewed at the makeshift gas station today is a local. "Look what we have been reduced to," says one man, holding a plastic five-gallon jerrican, which gas consumers now purchase at a new market stall just down the road. "Just what are the Americans doing?"

"For 35 years this anger built inside of people's hearts," says Al Hadawi, sitting in his mosque as members of the flock jostle for his attention. In the courtyard, there is an antique dresser and a lush white couch, along with sacks of flour and sugar. Someone reveals that the furniture was looted from Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz's house.

"We have been waiting for the end of the regime for a very long time," says the sheikh, who says he spent a year and a half in one of the state security prisons for political reasons. "But we are sorry that the U.S. has not used this opportunity well. I think they will stay here a long time."

Al Hadawi, and a few who have joined him, stress their desire for a democratic government in Iraq, and one acquainted with the needs of its citizens. Pressed further, the sheikh says Iran provides a good example of what he means. "We hope that the new government will be religious." He has met with other sheikhs to talk about ways to restore calm to the city, and there are reports that Shoala's example is being copied. The petrol program will end today, because supplies are running short. And Sheikh Al Hadawi needs the remaining fuel for the generator, because he now intends to provide electricity to the area.

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