Liberation, one month on: Chaos on the streets, cholera in the city and killings in broad daylight

By Phil Reeves in Baghdad

09 May 2003

Every war has its winners, and the sparkling eyes and vulpine grin of Uday Qais al-Sa'aba confirmed that he considered himself among them. "Welcome to my new home," he cried, arms outstretched, as he stood in his doorway.

Until the American tanks rolled under Saddam Hussein's great Hands of Victory monument, he lived with his mother and 13 others in two rooms in south Baghdad, protected from the elements by a corrugated iron roof. A personal talent for opportunism and the lawlessness on the capital's streets prompted him to try to move up in the world by leaping to the top of the pile in one bound.

Exactly a month has elapsed since the toppling of the statue of Saddam in the centre of Baghdad confirmed that the capital and the regime had at last fallen. Since then the country has seen an extraordinary redistribution of wealth, in which many thousands of impoverished Iraqis have embarked on a round-the-clock looting spree.

The lawlessness continues. Yesterday an American soldier was shot dead in broad daylight by an Iraqi who approached him with a pistol. US forces exchange fire with armed Iraqis almost daily across the country.

The continued failure to impose law and order on the streets of many towns and cities is drawing harsh criticism. "The last month has been pretty catastrophic in terms of building a new government," said Peter Galbraith, a former US ambassador who has spent the last three weeks in Iraq.

"The authority of the occupying power of the United States was very much diminished by this orgy of looting and destruction," he said.

There are some small successes. Thousands of manu-scripts and hundreds of artifacts missing from the National Museum have been recovered. Among them are a 7,000-year-old clay pot and a cornerstone from King Nebuchadnezzar's palace.

But it is the rapidly deteriorating public health system – as summer temperatures take hold – that is most worrying. After a month of occupation it remains in a state of collapse. Drinking water, from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, contaminated with sewage, has caused outbreaks of cholera and thyphoid among children in Basra. And the World Health Organisation warned yesterday that unless the security situation improves and medical staff can work in safety, the cholera outbreak could become an epidemic.

The US forces make sporadic efforts to stop the tide of looters – for instance, by occasionally throwing some people out of their new – stolen – riverside homes, and by detaining young looters for a few hours to scare them. But the effects are limited.

Mr al-Sa'aba, an unemployed clerk, just went one step further than most by trying to steal an entire house. This week he pronounced himself master of a property so lavish that if you swapped its commanding views of the Tigris for those of the Thames, it would be worth at least £3m.

It has a spiral staircase, balconies on all four floors, and a rooftop sundeck from which you can gaze down on the river's brown expanse and across the seething cityscape. It has ceiling-to-floor windows, solar heating, loos on every floor – in fact, everything you would expect of a modern town house for the highest level of the security apparatus that protected Saddam's dictatorship. In this case, the occupant was one of most senior officials in the secret police and intelligence service, the Mukhabarat.

The spy has disappeared, to avoid capture by the Americans. All that remains of him in his former home are a black-and-white photograph of a haughty looking young man with a Saddam moustache, some marksman's shooting targets, a book called The Principles of Life are Paramount, by Saddam Hussein, and a recipe – in French – on the kitchen wall.

Yesterday, American soldiers were sunning themselves behind a barrier of razor wire beside the city's main bus station. They and their Bradley fighting vehicle were less than 100 yards from the new "thieves' market" in al-Maydan Square, where looters gather to sell their spoils.

Bullets and magazines for Kalashnikovs were openly on sale. You could buy a stolen door for £4.40. Six pence will secure you a stolen floppy disc which – according to the labels – contains the accounts of Amoco Oil's operations. Someone fired a pistol; the Americans did not react, and nor did the crowd.

When the US forces first invaded, as Iraq ministries burned before the eyes of the occupying forces, building after building was stripped to its bones as if attacked by a shoal of human barracudas. Now the epidemic of thieving is less intense, but still continuous.

Looters searching for construction materials have been shovelling away at the ground at Abu Ghraib prison alongside relatives digging for the bodies of those hanged by Saddam's executioners. Armed gangs compete for bounty, shooting and stabbing their rivals. Gunfire has become as much a feature of occupied Baghdad as the piles of rotting rubbish that now cover the entire city.

Mr al-Sa'aba made his big move on the basis of a rumour. Word reached his neighbourhood – a drab suburb called al-Dura – that senior Iraqis had abandoned their homes in Abu Nuas Street. Realising that the Baghdad police and government had more or less ceased to function, the family packed up. It was like moving from Walthamstow to Chelsea.

"This place is enough for us, and even more than we need," he exclaimed happily, as his relatives humped in their tatty mattresses and battered furniture from a removal truck outside. He was still overcome by the luxury – wholly unfamiliar to most working-class Iraqis and well beyond his pre- war salary of £47 a month.

So, evidently, was his mother. As she wandered around the kitchen, gazing at its stainless steel surfaces and battery of cupboards, she burst into tears. "We had nothing like this in our old kitchen," her son explained.

Their excitement was not universally shared. A few of the pre-war residents have stayed on. Watching the arrivals unload their belongings, with an expression frosty enough to freeze the Tigris, was a 40-year-old Republican Guardgeneral. A sallow-faced man with a comb-over, he said his name was General Radr al-Hayatti. "They won't be allowed to stay," he said, dragging on a cigarette and scowling.

He had remained in his apartment, he explained, because he was waiting to see what evolves in post-war Iraq; he said he would not be willing to work with the Americans, but would serve an Iraqi government.

His wife, Suha, was more garrulous: "I'm not going to allow my children to mix with the children of these people. I am not sending them to school with them. It's not safe. In a month Iraq has gone back centuries. The Americans came and promised every one paradise, but where is it? This is hell."

Such concerns about the wild and lawless nature of the city are widespread. They have combined with a general frustration over the lack of jobs, electricity, clean water, and health care to create a groundswell of resentment against the country's new masters, counter-balanced only by the dislike of the old.

The Independent