Coalition forces occupying Iraq should have been better prepared for providing security in Iraq in the aftermath of invasion. Several clear historical and social factors, set out below, indicate that Basra's intense looting and continuing crime wave were foreseeable and thus avoidable.
In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, law and order broke down throughout Iraq as government forces were expelled from Kuwait, triggering a popular uprising throughout southern, predominantly Shi`a Muslim, Iraq. As the government's tight grip loosened, the political uprising was accompanied by an intense period of looting and lawlessness throughout southern Iraq.6 Basra's citizens still cite the memory of this period of political and criminal unrest (and the brutal repression of it by Saddam Hussein's government) as one of the reasons for their sensitivity to current conditions and their frustration at the lack of adequate preparation by coalition forces.
Basra's population was increasingly impoverished in the years after 1991. Saddam Hussein's government made little effort to help the city's economy. For example, numerous date palm plantations surrounding the city were destroyed partly as a result of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and partly as a result of the Iraqi government's anti-Shi`a policies in the 1990s. Date production was an important source of income for many villages, and the loss of these plantations further pauperized the population and generated an influx of poor and poorly-educated villagers into Basra. Many Basra residents and British officers view these displaced and impoverished people as forming the bulk of the scavengers and looters still operating around Basra.
In October 2002, Saddam Hussein released thousands of prisoners, mostly common criminals, from prisons around Iraq.7 Eyewitnesses have claimed to Human Rights Watch that they recognized several such freed prisoners among the more organized groups of looters that attacked banks and government institutions immediately after British occupation began. Many of Basra's citizens believed that these elements have been behind organized gangs involved in car-jackings and home invasions. Well-armed Arab tribes living in the areas north of Basra and among the marshes of southeastern Iraq also are blamed by many Iraqis as a source of organized criminal activity on the roads connecting Basra to the rest of Iraq and, increasingly, inside the major cities of the south.
Once British troops were inside the city they were confronted by two other factors which contributed to the atmosphere of chaos and insecurity. First, the citizens of Basra, like other Iraqis, are heavily armed. Immediately before the onset of the war, the Iraqi government distributed weapons to its supporters among the civilian population who in many cases abandoned them after the fall of the Ba'th government. In the chaos following the war, more weapons were stolen from warehouses and armories around the city by ordinary citizens. The government left behind huge stashes of weapons and ammunition, including mortar rounds, rocket propelled grenades, Katyusha rockets, and bullets for a variety of weapons. British forces were unable or unwilling to secure and clean these sites, leaving them open to any criminal or political groups seeking arms (and, at the same time, endangering children dismantling the weapons for gunpowder used in firecrackers).8
The second factor was the destruction of Basra's communications system. Without a local media in Basra to convey news to the city's population, British law enforcement authorities encountered difficulties in communicating effectively with the civilian population. In mid-May, British Military Police finally set up a telephone system to receive complaints, but many people in Basra-especially in the poorer neighborhoods-do not have access to a telephone, and the existing system is unreliable. It is still difficult for ordinary Iraqis to gain access to any of the four police stations operating around the city; the population retains its natural suspicion of the police; and lack of translators and bilingual officers render the British forces more remote (although British forces are noticeably more open than their U.S counterparts, who still wear full combat gear and typically operate from behind cement barricades and barbed wire fences). In this atmosphere, news spreads around the city by word of mouth only, often distorting and exaggerating incidents of lack of security and criminality around the area. Basra has become a city rife with rumors, mostly of violence and crime, further heightening the sense of insecurity felt by those living there.
6 Endless Torment.
7 Thomas Ferraro and Nadim Ladki, "Saddam Rallies Support with Prisoner Amnesty," Reuters, October 20, 2002.
8 See Human Rights Watch press release, "Basra: Unprotected Munitions Injure Civilians," May 6, 2003.