Thousands took part in the looting in Baghdad which began April 9, the day the Hussein government ceased to function in the capital city. Not only were government ministries targeted, and the homes of the Ba’athist elite, but public institutions vital to Iraqi society, including hospitals, schools and food distribution centers. Equipment and parts were stripped from power plants, thus delaying the restoration of electricity to the city of 5 million people.
Perhaps the most devastating loss for the Iraqi people is the ransacking of the National Museum, the greatest trove of archeological and historical artifacts in the Middle East. The 28 galleries of the huge museum were picked clean by looters who made off with more than 50,000 irreplaceable artifacts, relics of past civilizations dating back 5,000 years. The museum’s entire card catalog was destroyed, making it impossible even to identify what has been lost.
The US military stood by and permitted the ransacking of the museum, an incalculable blow to Iraqi and world culture, just as they allowed and even encouraged the looting of hospitals, universities, libraries and government social service buildings. The occupation forces protected only the Ministry of Oil, with its detailed inventory of Iraqi oil reserves, as well as the Ministry of Interior, the headquarters of the ousted regime’s secret police.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) issued a statement in Geneva declaring that the relief agency was “profoundly alarmed by the chaos currently prevailing in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq.” The medical system in Baghdad “has virtually collapsed,” the ICRC warned, and it reminded the US and Britain that they were obliged under international law to guarantee the basic security of the Iraqi population.
General Tommy Franks, the overall commander of all US and British forces in Iraq, issued an order to unit commanders that specifically prohibited the use of force to prevent looting. This instruction was only modified after several days because of mounting protests by Iraqi citizens over the destruction of their social infrastructure.
The New York Times reported one such protest by an Iraqi man who was standing guard at Al Kindi hospital in Baghdad. Haider Daoud “said he was angry at his encounters with American soldiers in the neighborhood, mentioning one marine who he said he had begged to guard the hospital two days ago. ‘He told me the same words: He can’t protect the hospital,’ Mr. Daoud said. ‘A big army like the USA army can’t protect the hospital?’”
The role of the US military went beyond simply standing by, and extended to actually encouraging and facilitating looting. According to a report in the Washington Post, after the US military reopened two bridges across the Tigris River to civilian traffic, “the immediate result was that looters raced across and extended their plundering to the Planning Ministry and other buildings that had been spared.”
Sweden’s largest newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, published an interview April 11 with a Swedish researcher of Middle Eastern ancestry who had gone to Iraq to serve as a human shield. Khaled Bayoumi told the newspaper, “I happened to be right there just as the American troops encouraged people to begin the plundering.”