BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Manning roadblocks, Sgt. Steven Christopher found himself picking up Arabic phrases he’d never heard but suddenly needed: “You are a thief. Do you think I am stupid? If you steal, we can shoot you.”
Sporadic but tough measures by Marines, along with checkpoints and vigilante groups thrown together by Iraqis, combined yesterday to curb looters who have gutted parts of Baghdad, shut down commerce and pilfered priceless art from millenniums of human history.
From Baghdad south to Basra, coalition forces are starting to work with local people to reclaim Iraqi towns from the chaos that followed a war now all but won.
In the capital, smoke from the Ministry of Trade, the Rashid Theater of Fine Arts, offices and apartment buildings was vivid testament that looting and arson continued. Robbery seemed to have eased, probably because the choicest and easiest booty was gone.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with these toilets,” Christopher mused, M-16 in hand, as he surveyed the bathroom fixtures and a loudspeaker confiscated from a pickup truck driven by suspected looters.
Yesterday, Christopher and the other Marine riflemen and tank crews with him worked a checkpoint leading to the Tamooze Bridge over the Tigris River, stopping suspicious vehicles – chiefly pickups piled high with goods.
Chairs, bookcases, refrigerators and toilets seized by the Marines piled high by the side of the road. Confiscated hot-wired cars and trucks sat parked on a side street awaiting owners with proper papers.
Local men, desperate to see calm and normalcy return, helped the Marines translate and finger the guilty.
“I came here thinking I wouldn’t need any Arabic at all – just `Put your hands up’ and ‘Put your weapons down’,” Christopher said. “They’ve been teaching me how to talk to the thieves. … Things like, ‘You are lying, I’m not stupid,’ and ‘If you steal, we will kill you.'”
In other parts of town, no such policing had kicked in.
“We have plans to stop it,” Sgt. Spence Williamford said at a median outside the Information Ministry as a looter passed by pushing an office chair stacked with purloined goods.
“It’s only been a day since we’ve been taking fire,” Williamford answered. “As long as there’s chaos, we’ve got other things to worry about. Right now our first priority is to keep U.S. soldiers alive.”
In Basra, southern Iraq’s largest city, efforts were under way to bring Iraqis into policing.