A growing number of humanitarian organizations urged the Bush administration Friday to take "urgent measures" to restore order in Iraq, saying they do not believe U.S. and British troops are doing nearly enough to secure Iraq's cities, protect civilians and safeguard critical facilities such as hospitals.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld acknowledged the problem, but insisted that U.S. forces are moving aggressively to arrest looters at hospitals, provide medical care and distribute needed water, medicine and other supplies. He suggested media reports were exaggerating the extent of looting.
Meanwhile a new humanitarian concern emerged as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said that as many as 30,000 Iraqis fleeing unrest had been reported reaching the city of Badrah, on the Iranian border about 90 miles from Baghdad. If the reports are confirmed, it would be the first serious flow of refugees since the war began.
Interviewed by U.N. workers, the Iraqis said they had come from Baghdad and Nasiriyah, hoping to "remain in the [Badrah] area with relatives and friends," a UNHCR statement said. It added that some aid for the refugees was coming from Iran.
In Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement that it is "profoundly alarmed by the chaos currently prevailing in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq." It said the medical system in Baghdad "has virtually collapsed," with hospitals closed due to combat damage, looting and fear of looting.
The ICRC urged the United States and Britain to fulfill their obligations under international humanitarian law as "occupying powers" to stop violence against civilians. Amnesty International made a similar demand, calling on the allies to deploy "adequate numbers of troops with the appropriate training to maintain law and order."
A coalition of 160 U.S.-based relief and refugee organizations called InterAction urged the Bush administration to "swiftly restore order" in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities amid signs of "widespread lawlessness."
Briefing reporters at the Pentagon, Rumsfeld said nonstop media coverage of the situation in Iraq is exaggerating the extent of the lawlessness. "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," he said.
He also said that, to some extent, the chaos in Baghdad and other cities is inevitable as the yoke of repression is lifted and replaced with freer conditions. The looting, he argued, has largely focused on palaces and other symbols of a hated dictator.
"While no one condones looting, on the other hand one can understand the pent-up feelings that may result from decades of repression and people who've had members of their family killed by that regime, for them to be taking their feelings out on that regime," he said.
Rumsfeld said the administration is pressing allies for assistance in stabilizing Iraq and is seeking ways to deploy police forces in Iraq, possibly utilizing members of the Iraqi police who are deemed acceptable by U.S. authorities. He said he had attended a National Security Council meeting earlier in the day that had focused on peace and stability operations.
He noted that Singapore had committed to sending a medical unit to Iraq, one of several instances of aid offered by other nations. At the State Department, where officials say that 58 of more than 65 countries queried about possible assistance have indicated they are interested, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage said in an interview with a German media outlet that Albania has committed to providing troops for guarding Muslim holy sites.
In Ottawa, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien said that Canada, which opposed the war, would be willing to send elements of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to help restore order if asked to do so by the United States. "We will be there to help," he said.
While Rumsfeld said that U.S. forces are arresting those looting some Iraqi hospitals, Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, commander of the war in Iraq, issued an order read to unit commanders Friday that, in clarifying the rules of behavior for U.S. forces in Baghdad, prohibited the use of deadly force to prevent looting.
The order also instructed U.S. forces to allow government workers to go to their jobs. It said hospitals, businesses and mosques should remain open, and schools should reopen and record attendance.
Police, fire and emergency workers should continue to report to their jobs unless told otherwise, Franks directed. He also said the Iraqi public must not be permitted to engage in any terrorist acts or display weapons publicly and should halt looting.
At the Pentagon, a senior military official said the looting and other street violence not directed at U.S. troops present American commanders with a dilemma.
"The problem is, the people doing the looting are not threatening our forces," the official said. "So the right of self-defense to justify the use of force doesn't apply. But we're obviously concerned about the violence."
On Thursday, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that U.S. forces were attempting, as the British were doing in Basra, "to seek out the former police officials [and] vet them as best they can, determine their acceptability to the local population to continue to provide law and order, and to enable them to do that."
But Army Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, briefing reporters Friday at the Central Command headquarters in Qatar, said that U.S. forces have been unable to begin that process in Baghdad. "As we entered the city, we found that there are police radios that we've captured, and the police were calling for and adjusting indirect fire in support of the regime," he said. "So putting the police back on is not an easy solution for us."
A plan for replacing the local police force has not yet been designed, he said, but will have to be set in motion in the near future.
Brooks said that the tens of thousands of U.S. troops still moving into Iraq would increasingly focus on stability and security operations as combat operations "come to closure." He acknowledged that looting at some hospitals has become a problem that is putting injured individuals at risk, and he said U.S. forces were "trying to establish some conditions of security where looting is not an acceptable behavior."
"We seek to create conditions of stability where people can walk the streets safely without looting, without violence, without exploding vehicles," Brooks said. "That hasn't occurred yet. So we'll play a role in that, a military role inside of that to achieve that purpose. In some cases it may require shooting machine guns in downtown."
Intelligence analysts, meanwhile, fear that problems between different Shiite groups that may have been dormant during their shared repression under Saddam Hussein may re-emerge now that his iron control is gone. One senior analyst recalled Friday that much of the bloodiest fighting that took place in Basra in the 1991 uprising against Hussein turned out to be among three Shiite groups attacking each other, and not against representatives of the Baghdad government.
One analyst warned that another test of the internal religious instability may come shortly when a traditional Shiite march, banned for years by Hussein, will take place from Najaf to Karbala. "This may be like Yugoslavia where religious groups were forced to bury their antagonisms during Tito's reign but once he was gone the old blood rivalries quickly were resumed," the senior analyst said.Staff writers Walter Pincus and Peter Slevin contributed to this report.