THE MAKING OF A COMBAT GENERAL:  'Now Comes the Hard Part'

After Chaos in the Capital, Losses Climbed

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By Rick Atkinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 9, 2004

Last of three articles

Shortly after noon on Friday, April 11, 2003, we drove into a Pepsi bottling plant along Highway 8 in Baghdad's southern suburbs. Now converted into a U.S. Army command post, the plant's offices had been ransacked, but a photo remained on the wall showing the presumptive plant manager with former president Saddam Hussein's son Uday, whose pompadour and open-necked shirt gave him the greasy look of a lounge-singing extortionist. The floors were littered with bottle caps and Viceroy butts and a crushed box of Al Reem Luxury Dates.

Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, settled into a chair at a table in the courtyard. So far, the division's helicopter assault and occupation of the southern quarter of the capital had gone smoothly, although one colonel told Petraeus that "these are not the cheering crowds" the division had encountered farther south. After more than 10 days spent subduing the Shiite cities of Najaf, Karbala and Hilla, the 101st had been ordered to Baghdad to help the 3rd Infantry Division and U.S. Marines take over the city.

Petraeus studied a map, consulted briefly with his subordinates and climbed back into his Humvee. As we left the compound, an officer was negotiating with an Iraqi cabdriver who claimed his taxi had been destroyed by 3rd Division gunfire. "He'd like reparations. Three thousand dollars for his car," the officer told Petraeus. "Or 47 million dinars, if you have it handy."

A double archway over Highway 8 signaled our entrance into the city, where the looting was underway in earnest. Scores, and then hundreds, and finally thousands swarmed through the industrial parks fronting the highway; a few carried truce flags, but most were too intent on pilferage to worry about gunplay.

Men, women and children wheeled, dragged, carried and drove away booty, converting side streets into shopping aisles. Three men, waving gaily, each rolled a 55-gallon drum past the Humvee. A man in a green skullcap pushed a three-wheeled handcart piled high with copper wire; two little boys helped him negotiate the street curb.

Propane tanks and pipes, school desks and trash dumpsters, lamps and ladders -- it all swept past us in a great river of loot. At the Alalaf Marble and Granite Co., a mob hoisted a generator into a truck bed, while others cavorted through the Al-Aamawhi Dairy and the Economy Bank for Finance and Investment, where the metal window grills had been smashed. A Chevrolet Caprice trundled past with nine new tires, still wrapped in brown paper, lashed to the roof and trunk. Crowds swarmed over bulldozers and a Caterpillar steam shovel in a parking lot, evidently trying to hot-wire the heavy equipment. A young man emerged rolling an enormous truck tire.

"What in the world would you do with that?" Petraeus murmured.

Just hours after Saddam Hussein's statue had toppled in Firdos Square in an image broadcast around the world, the liberation of Iraq had become the plundering of Baghdad.

Petraeus was scouting sites for the division headquarters, and we pulled into the compound of a company that made firefighting equipment and safety helmets. A tank round had punched through the administration building's portico, and smoke boiled from a warehouse. Dozens of red extinguishers lay scattered across the parking lot. Capt. David G. Fivecoat, the general's aide, flipped off the safety of his M-4 rifle, shooed away a few looters, and poked around a smoky office suite before returning to the Humvee. "This looks like it could be too much of a fixer-upper, sir," he said.

"Yeah," Petraeus agreed, "it's a money pit." I wondered whether the same could be said of the entire country. Fivecoat subsequently recorded the inevitable course of the pilferage: "First, they removed the furniture; then the doors, windows and light fixtures; then banisters, light switches and wires; and then, finally, they would take the building down, brick by brick."

Later in the day Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld -- asserting that "freedom's untidy" -- would deny that looting was widespread. "The images you are seeing on television you are seeing over and over and over, and it's the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase." The Pentagon press corps laughed, but the reality on the ground was different: an abrupt transition to anarchy that threatened disaster not only for Iraq but also for the United States. The cultural losses alone were staggering, including arson or grand larceny at the Religious Endowment Library, the Central Library of Baghdad University and 18 galleries of the National Museum.


CONTINUED     1              >

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