The British entry into Basra's city center in the first week of April immediately set off uncontrolled looting that continued at a diminished level six weeks later. The extent of the looting in the first week, and British failure to respond to it, convinced many residents of Basra that their security was not a priority for British forces. As conditions gradually calmed down, the ongoing lack of a strong British security presence on the streets and the complete absence of any police force further cemented this conviction.
The lawlessness that followed the fall of the city was created by roving gangs of looters. Some were well-organized, others apparently opportunistic. As in several other cities in Iraq, the looters focused on banks, government buildings, and other major state and commercial institutions. Western journalists entering the city in the wake of British forces reported thousands of looters carrying on in plain view of British troops.9
In response to press inquiries as to why the British forces stood by and allowed the looting, Brigadier Graham Binns, Commander of the British Seventh Armored Brigade responsible for taking the city, explained that he lacked sufficient troops to protect the city, and had to focus on protecting vital infrastructure, such as oil facilities and food warehouses.10 Other British troops at the time offered a less benign explanation: that coalition troops tolerated, and even encouraged, the looting of government buildings as the population's cathartic reaction to the fall of Saddam Hussein's government.11 While this may explain British inaction in the face of attacks on government buildings, it does little to explain why coalition forces stood by as other important civilian and commercial locations were looted.
Certainly, government institutions were a favored target of the looters. Looters ransacked government security buildings, such as the General Security Directorate and the General Intelligence Directorate building, for several days on end. Documents and records were either destroyed or taken away. Human Rights Watch researchers witnessed looters with unhindered access to these buildings as late as April 28. Not all the looters were interested in the substance of these institution's operations. Nearly all furniture, office equipment, and even transportable building material like ceiling tiles, electrical fixtures, and cables were stripped from many government buildings in Basra.
More troubling, Basra's central suq (market) and old commercial district, al-Ashar, was also abandoned to looters for nearly a week as British forces stood by. Mutlaq Kitab Hamud, a fifty-two-year-old cloth merchant with a shop in al-Ashar market, described the chaos of the first two days after British forces entered the city.
I was in my shop because I was trying to protect it. The first day that the British came to central Basra, their forces stopped at the Ashar River [which bisects central Basra from West to East]. They were stopped on the other side of the river before noon. Their tanks were just waiting there. Then an hour or so after noon, they crossed the river and went through the streets of the center. At that time, there were two or three hundred people waiting in groups behind them. It was a big mob. Some of them had acetylene torches and welding masks, and they headed straight for the Rafidain Bank [a branch of one of Iraq's largest banking groups]. The British tanks were standing right in front, but they didn't do a thing to stop the criminals. They were even encouraging them, saying "Go in Ali Baba, go in."
Human Rights Watch interviews with nearly a dozen shop owners from al-Ashar market area substantially supported this account of British inactivity in the face of widespread looting. Muhammad Akhdar `Abbud, a forty-year-old tailor in al-Ashar market, described the scene thus:
On the first two days after the British entered the city, the looters were everywhere. I think many of them looked like criminals newly released from prison; they had tattoos. They were using welding equipment to get into the Rafidain and Rashid banks [in the center of al-Ashar market]. There were maybe two hundred looters there. A British tank was in front of the Rafidain bank but it did not do anything. After a while, the tank just left. We asked the British to stay because there was looting going on, to protect us, but they just left.12
British troops only interfered in the looting in the city center when looters fired their guns. An extended gunfight on April 8 between two groups of looters fighting over access to the banks prompted a rapid British response. In the ensuing firefight, several looters were killed; the bodies of four looters shot and killed while attempting to escape in a Toyota remained in an intersection for several days thereafter. Apparently, even this grim reminder did not deter looters from continuing their work-armed only with clubs and knives.13
Basra's hospitals, already taxed to the breaking point by casualties related to the conflict, also faced persistent problems with looting and lack of security. Immediately after British forces entered the city, they provided security only to the city's largest hospital, the al-Jumhuri General Hospital. Other hospitals were initially left to fend for themselves with medical and support staff taking up primitive weapons and standing guard around the clock to deter looters. Some relief came from the local mosques within the week, with clerics organizing small groups of men to act as unarmed guards for the hospitals.
Physicians at the other three major hospitals in Basra, al-Ta`limi (Teaching) Hospital, al-Tahrir Hospital, and Ibn Ghazwan Maternity and Pediatrics Hospital, told Human Rights Watch that they had to specifically ask British troops for protection in the first days of the occupation. British troops did provide some security to these hospitals, but this protection was sporadic and looters continued to threaten staff and supplies.
Dr. As'ad `Issa, director of the Ibn Ghazwan hospital, told Human Rights Watch that he and his staff had organized twenty-four-hour patrols, armed with makeshift weapons like wooden clubs, to protect the hospital immediately after the occupation began, saying they did not receive adequate protection from British troops despite numerous requests.
On the first day, two physicians from the hospital went to ask for protection from the British. That night, a British tank did a circuit around the hospital, but then it left. The second day, I went to the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] to get help from anyone, and they directed us again to the British. That night, they sent two tanks to go around the hospital, but they left after a while, and we stayed up all night because we could see gangs of looters outside the gates. Looters had already totally gone through the electrical supply building behind the hospital, and they were after the propane tanks we store behind the hospital. We were scared that they would set off an explosion if they tried to take the tanks.
The third night, we had no protection at all. We were too busy dealing with patients to go ask for it. At about 4:30 a.m., we found a group of three looters in the hospital, one of them armed with an AK-47, trying to steal our air conditioning unit. We confronted them in a group, and they finally just ran away. The following nights, we asked for protection from the British again, and they promised us some troops, but they only sent a tank to do a round. So ultimately we asked for protection from committees organized by the mosques, who sent us young men with wooden clubs. They help us, but it's only an emergency measure.14
Other institutions also were under siege. Businesses and institutions around Basra had begun relying on their own employees for protection due to the lack of response from British forces. The Iraqi Tankers Oil Company, a major petroleum distribution facility located on Sa'ad Square, one of Basra's most important crossroads, was severely looted in the first week of April. Akid Muhammad Jamil, a thirty-six-year old employee of the company, was asked by his supervisor to report to the company in order to help protect it after the initial wave of looting had already resulted in the loss of much of the company's belongings-not just fuel, but also office equipment, instruments, air conditioning units, office furniture, cabinets, and even electrical and telephone cables.
Five days after the British came, some looters came to the warehouse at midday. They had no guns, but they threatened us-they said they would beat us up, and if we opposed them they would return at night with guns. There were four British tanks on Sa'ad Square, so we went to the British to ask them to help us. We said there are looters inside the building, threatening us. We even had to lie to tell them that they had guns, so that maybe the British would come. But they didn't. So we returned to the building and saw that the looters were taking some stuff, and we eventually managed to chase them off. But they returned at 4:30 p.m., the same group. By then we got ourselves a gun, and this time we held them off. We were afraid to shoot because we knew that would attract the British and that they would shoot us. When the looters left, they said they would return at night with guns. At 9:30 p.m., some other looters came by, in a stolen sanitation company car, and demanded fuel. They had a gun with them, so we were afraid. But we had no fuel left, so we eventually argued them out of it. All the time, four British tanks were just sitting in the street.15
On the other side of Sa'ad Square, Basra University was looted and gutted in plain view of British troops during the first few days after British forces entered the city. The initial wave of looting burned down the library, estimated to hold some one million volumes, including important manuscripts about the history of the Persian Gulf. Looters also completely tore apart the university's planetarium, whose blue dome is a Basra landmark. Looters essentially emptied the university's several faculties of books, school supplies, and furniture.16
After being attacked by Iraqi militia hiding in the university and the adjacent faculty residences, British forces entered the university on April 6 and established a camp in the College of Arts. The following day, as mobs of looters swarmed the university, British forces decided to leave the university to the looters.
Professor Kadhim K. `Ali, who teaches English translation at the Faculty of Arts, returned to the university on April 7 to find hundreds of looters rampaging around the university while British troops were camped in the arts faculty, where he teaches. "I saw groups of looters just taking everything, all over the university, while the British were just standing there. The only building intact was the arts faculty, where the British were," he told Human Rights Watch.17
I went to a British major who was standing with his troops on the main street of the campus. I told him I am a professor and I would like to remove the furniture and property from the arts faculty building to protect it.... A group of other professors, including the chair of the history department, tried to talk to the British troops to get them to do something to protect the arts faculty. But the British said they couldn't let them in because it was too unsafe. So that faculty was ultimately looted also."18
Ramadhan M. Sa'adkhan, an assistant professor at the arts faculty, returned to the university on April 8. By that time, the arts faculty had been looted. "I saw the looters just running wild. It wasn't even looting. I saw them set books on fire, loot books that were of no use to them. We had a major library collection relating to the historical heritage of Basra, it was completely ransacked."
Prof. Sa'adkhan also expressed astonishment that British forces, who by his reckoning had four armored vehicles parked immediately outside the university, did nothing to stop the rampant looting. "When I asked the U.K. forces to stop the looters, they said `We can bring back better books and equipment.' But when is that going to happen? We have no idea. It would have been easier to just stop the looters then."19
9 Among news reports, see "Looters Take Over: Crowds Flood Iraq's Second City as British Troops Enter," ABCNews.com, April 7, 2003 [online], http://abcnews.go.com/section/world/WorldNewsTonight/iraq-looting030407.html.
10 Marc Santora, "Scholars Feel Helpless as they See Their Campus Destroyed," New York Times, May 19, 2003.
11 For instance, see Michael Georgy, "Basra Residents Say Looting Rampant, Demand Action," Reuters, April 8, 2003.
12 Human Rights Watch Interview, Muhammad Akhdar Abbud, Basra, April 24, 2003.
13 Human Rights Watch interview, Ayyad Sa'afi, Basra, April 24, 2003.
14 Human Rights Watch interview, Dr. As'ad `Issa, Basra, April 21, 2003.
15 Human Rights Watch interview, Akid Muhammad Jamil, Basra, May 12, 2003.
16 Marc Santora, "Scholars Feel Helpless as They See Their Campus Destroyed," New York Times, May 19, 2003.
17 Human Rights Watch interview, Basra, May 12, 2003.
18 Human Rights Watch interview, Basra, May 12, 2003.
19 Human Rights interview, Ramadhan M. Sa'adkhan, Basra, May 12, 2003.