11 April 2003

Amazing. From Irish national radio news just now: "The US Defence Secretary has denied there has been a breakdown of law and order in Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld said widespread looting is just part of the transitional process."

Meanwhile, The Guardian: "Iraq's slide into violent anarchy will trigger a humanitarian disaster if US and British troops are unable to fill the power vacuum and reassert order quickly.

In Baghdad two humanitarian organisations that had operated throughout the war, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins sans Frontières, said their work had been hobbled by the general lawlessness.

MSF halted its work in Baghdad after two of its workers went missing. Amanda Williamson, a Red Cross spokeswoman, said the organisation had suspended its work in the capital after a Canadian employee was killed.

"It's not possible to distribute medical and surgical supplies or drinking water to the hospitals as we had wanted to. The situation is chaotic and very insecure," Ms Williamson said, arguing that US troops in the city could do more to help.

"At this stage they could at least do everything possible to protect vital civilian infrastructure, like hospitals and the water supply."

10:03:49 PM  #   your two cents []

Transcript of the conversation noted below, between reporter Lindsay Hilsum of major UK network Channel Four, and Irish broadcaster Pat Kenny, on Irish national radio. Listen yourself here (starting 2 minutes in).

Reporter Lindsay Hilsum: [The American soldiers] tell vehicles to stop, but people in Baghdad don't know they're being told to stop because they don't have any megaphones and they say stop in English, not in Arabic. It's very hard for people to know what they're being told to do. So the Iraqis quite often speed up, because they think, oh gosh, we don't know what the situation is, let's get out of it, and they speed up. When that happens, the Americans shoot. Now we witnessed them doing this. And then we heard some sounds of women crying. And I have to say the marines seemed to be indifferent to this, and we didn't know what to do. And then our translator Mohammed Fatwan, who I now think is one of the bravest men I've ever met, said, I want to go and see what happened, and the marines said OK, and he walked across the road to the opposite side. And then we saw the most terrible scene, because a few minutes later he came running back with this small 6 year old girl in his arms, and she had been shot by the marines in a car which had failed to stop. And then he said, there's two more, there's two more, and then we went across and we found out that the driver of the car was injured, as well as the little girl; her aunt was also injured and a man who had come out on his balcony to see what was happening had been killed outright... [goes on to describe a second incident they witnessed of a van being riddled with bullets].

Pat Kenny, Irish radio presenter: It seems to suggest a lack of experience and gross indiscipline by the American troops.

Channel 4: Well, I think what it shows is that they really don't understand the situation here. They can't really tell who is a civilian and who isn't a civilian, and that of course is partly the policy of the Iraqi fighters who are left... they don't care about civilians either, that's why they use the cover of civilians to mount their attacks on the Americans. And also the Americans don't seem to know what they are shooting at, and they seem to shoot at anything. They seem to shoot before they think, such is their fear that they are going to be attacked themselves, and the consequences are just terrible.

Once we had brought those wounded in -- because they didn't want to go and get the wounded, it was our translator who brought the wounded people to them -- they did start to patch them up, they brought out their paramedic and then they arranged an airlift in a helicopter to a field hospital for the little girl and for the other people who were badly injured. So they did eventually respond when they had to. But I have to say, if Mohammed hadn't been there, they would never have found out who they'd hurt or who they'd killed.

PK: It does seem as if procedures had not been thought through. I do know from pictures we've seen from Basra, that after initial difficulties, that the UK field forces were putting up signs in advance of the checkpoints in Arabic indicating that they wanted vehicles to stop; that sort of thing, but it does demonstrate quite clearly that some attempt to restore the civil power in Baghdad is urgently necessary.

Channel 4: Absolutely. Some [format?] like that would be excellent, signs in Arabic would be excellent, megaphones would be excellent, an Arab translator with each unit would be very good as well. We often find it difficult to do our work, because every time we turn up near the Americans, they realise we have two Arabic-speaking people with us, and they need translation. They should have their own translators. But certainly the issue of law and order is the major one here in Baghdad today. The looting we saw yesterday was terrible. We watched the university being looted. You had young men driving donkey carts taking computers away, and they were taking just everything they could find... You had other people watching, just horrified. And one young woman said, we need government. We must have government. It's the only way we can stop this miserable situation.

PK: Those who are experienced in these matters though would probably say, look, these are the early postwar days in Baghdad. It must have been very like this in many cities that were subject to an invasion, or a liberating force, and because there's so many journalists there we're hearing about this far more emphatically than we did in other wars, but it always happens.

Channel 4: That may well be true. But under the Geneva Convention it says that an occupying force has the responsibility to keep law and order. So it is the responsibility of the Americans here and of the British in Basra in the south to stop this kind of lawlessness. And it's in their own interest to stop this kind of lawlessness, because if this goes on, Iraq will be ungovernable and there will be more vendettas and anger. You have to remember that nearly all Iraqi men are armed, everybody has a Kalashnikov in the house, and so what goes from looting one day turns into fighting the next. It's in their own interest if they want to truly bring some sort of liberation or at least, peace to this country, that they put a stop to this as soon as they can.

PK: American Lt. Col. Brian McCoy said he wasn't really bothered by the looting of ministries or homes of the Iraqi leaders. He said what we must protect is the civilian infrastructure, such as hospitals, power staions and water plants... In one way, the looting of the house of Tariq Aziz is just sort of a metaphorical blood-letting isn't it?

Channel 4: Well, you can say that. But then, one day you have one lot looting the house of Tariq Aziz and setting free Saddam Hussein's son's Arab horses, but then in another part of town, you are seeing the universities being looted, as we watched, and the hospitals. It all becomes part of the same thing, which is this atmosphere of anarchy and lawlessness. And really, the Iraqi people -- the Iraqi people who said to me on the first day that they felt so relieved and happy that maybe peace had come at last, they're now fearing to go out of their houses. And also, of course, people aren't opening their shops up. Many people took the goods from their shops back to their homes before the war started, for fear of exactly this. And until they feel they can put those things back in the shops again, no one's going to be able to feel they can start commerce, to start economic life, and to get back to any kind of normality. 

PK: The final question, Lindsay, is what is going to happen in the future? The suggestion is that the Americans had too few troops in any event to cope with this eventuality, and the advance was more rapid than they expected, so they arrived before they had put any plans they might have had for civilian infrastructure, in train.

Channel 4: Well, it's not known how they're going to deal with it, but I know they should have thought of  a plan before they got here, because it's not unpredictable that this would happen.

9:28:10 PM  #   your two cents []

Here is the folly of Rumsfeld's bargain-basement approach to waging war, and his risky decision to rush already-overstretched troops in to take Baghdad, rather than waiting for reinforcements: widespread looting and vandalism, at first encouraged by US troops rather than immediately curtailed while manageable, has gone out of control and US troops are doing nothing to contain it -- because commanders say they don't have enough people.  (Rumsfeld, however, has stated a short time ago that there IS no widespread lawlessness and the looting is no big deal). Latest reports say Iraqis have looted the most important archaeological museum in humankind's "cradle of civilisation", hospitals, universities and citizen's shops. Baghdad is in chaos. A British journalist on tonight's Irish radio news noted that the looting should have been stopped immediately and expressed amazement that the US seemed to at least initially, support it. One imagines the initial photo opportunities, especially of Iraqis tearing down Saddam's statues, were too good a photo op.

Another incredulous British reporter from Channel 4 reported on Irish radio today that Americans were shouting 'stop' in English rather than in Arabic at cars at checkpoints, then opening fire when they don't (sound file here; starting at 2 minutes in; written transcript immediately above, or click here.). In one case observed by the British TV crew, the marines at a checkpoint opened fire on a car, which then careened to a stop. When the marines said they would not go to see if there were any injured, the British crew's Arab translator ran to the car; the translator returned running moments later with a badly-injured 6 year old girl in his arms. Eventually the soldiers called a transport helicopter for the child. A local man who walked out to his balcony to see what was happening was also shot and killed. The British reporter could not believe that the soldiers had had no intention of going over to see if the car had injured civilians. And, she asked,  why don't the Americans have translators working with troops at checkpoints, and why aren't they putting up signs in Arabic -- as the British soldiers in Basra have done -- warning cars to stop and wait before approaching checkpoints? Could this possibly be why we have no reports yet of British soldiers having shot children to death accidentally at checkpoints in Basra?

8:16:14 PM  #   your two cents []