By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 26, 2006
BAGHDAD, Aug. 25 -- Armed looters ransacked an abandoned British base in southern Iraq on Friday as Iraqi soldiers guarding the camp stood by and watched, heightening concerns that Iraqi troops are still ill-equipped to take control of security from U.S.-led coalition forces.
A crowd of as many as 5,000 people, including hundreds armed with AK-47 assault rifles, attacked Camp Abu Naji and hauled away window and door frames, corrugated roofing and metal pipes, despite the presence of a 450-member Iraqi army brigade meant to guard the base.
"The looters stole everything -- even the bricks," said Ahmed Mohammed Abdul Latief, 20, a student at Maysan University. "They almost leveled the whole base to the ground."
The last of 12,000 British troops left the camp in Amarah, the capital of southern Maysan province, on Thursday after continued mortar attacks by a local Shiite Muslim militia that residents said was controlled by anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Adopting guerrilla tactics used in North Africa during World War II, 600 of the soldiers will soon slip into the marshlands and deserts near the Iranian border to prevent weapons smuggling.
Maj. Charlie Burbridge, a British military spokesman, said the Iraqi army maintained full control of the camp, even during the looting, and had managed to eject the thieves by early evening. "Our confidence in the Iraqi security forces to maintain day-to-day order in Amarah remains unaffected," he said.
But the inability of the Iraqi soldiers to prevent widespread looting in one of the country's calmest provinces, as well as the reported mutiny of a local army brigade, left doubts about whether U.S.-led forces will be able to hand over security to the Iraqi government anytime soon.
"Obviously this raises questions about the effectiveness of the Iraqi security forces," Christopher A. Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, said in a telephone interview from Washington. "What progress has been made in the past three years in terms of standing up an Iraqi security force for taking over the country when the United States leaves?"
The looting, which lasted from about 10 a.m. to early evening, turned violent at about noon when individuals in the mob shot at the base, Burbridge said. The Iraqi troops asked the province's governor for permission to return fire, a decision the British military highlighted as evidence of the security force's training.
"It demonstrated that they understand the importance of civilian primacy, that the government -- and not the military -- is in charge," Burbridge said in a phone interview from Basra.
Injuries were reported on both sides, but no one was killed, Burbridge said. Given the extreme poverty in Amarah, a town of 300, Burbridge said that it was understandable that residents would loot the base. He also said many were motivated by curiosity to see the inside of a long-forbidden camp, which had been controlled by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein for years before the British took control of it.
"The issue here is not really malice. It's economics," Burbridge said. "The people of Amarah -- many of whom are extremely poor -- saw what they believed to be a bit of an Aladdin's cave inside."
Residents said, however, that antipathy toward the British was strong. After Sadr declared Amarah the first city in Iraq to drive out U.S.-led coalition forces, jubilant residents congratulated one another and planned to take to the streets in celebration.
"We have already stopped our relations with British forces," said Abduljabbar Waheed, head of the provincial council of Maysan. "We always deal with them as occupiers. They have committed many crimes against our people during the last months, they don't care for the people, and they have their own agenda goes against our people's interests."
Iraqi army Lt. Ali Kareem of the 4th Brigade, 10th Division, said some members of his unit began to mutiny Thursday after learning that they were being deployed to Baghdad the next day to support a security plan in the capital. He said troops in the brigade's 2nd Battalion -- mainly members of Shiite militias such as Sadr's Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade -- started to fire guns and mortars in protest because they thought the American military was "trying to get rid of them." The situation was resolved only after the brigade commander said the protesters did not have to deploy to Baghdad.
In other developments, the head of a major Iraqi sect of Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam that had previously rejected violence against U.S.-led coalition forces, declared holy war on American troops. The leader, Sheik Mohammed al-Qadiri, said his sect would form a new group, the Battalions of Shikh Abdul Qadir al-Gaillani, and join the insurgency.
"We will not wait for the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade to enter our houses and kill us," said Ahmed al-Soffi, a Sufi leader in the western city of Fallujah, referring to the country's major Shiite militias. "We will fight the Americans and the Shiites who are against us."
Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi, K.I. Ibrahim and Naseer Nouri contributed to this report.