The law in a lawless land
82nd finds the looters are as prevalent as the danger

March, 2004


NASSIR WA AL SALAAM, Iraq - Eerie. Surreal. Spooky. You pick the adjective. Before the war, the Iraqi Ministry of Trade warehouse complex was a grand place, eight football fields wide, 12 football fields deep, 30 beautifully engineered steel-framed warehouses, some of them longer than three football fields. An eight-foot wall surrounded the entire site.

Inside were wide, smooth concrete streets lined with fragrant eucalyptus trees befitting a place that stored not just food but all of the luxury items - refrigerators, air conditioners, televisions - reserved for the Saddam Hussein loyalists who populated what now is commonly called the Sunni Triangle. Some of those loyalists still pursue a war of attrition against Americans in this area immediately west of Baghdad.

But the combat inside this walled complex has nothing to do with rooting out those insurgents who almost nightly mortar and rocket American bases and place deadly bombs alongside roads. Instead, the warehouse complex is now one site in a battle to re-establish basic law and order, with troopers from the 82nd Airborne Division acting as the posse in a largely lawless region.

"I don't particularly care to do operations to go after what I'd call common criminals or common looters, but there are some entities that we have to be sure to get protected," said Col. Jefforey Smith, 42, of Columbus, Ohio, who commands the 3rd Brigade of the 82nd. "The Iraqi security forces and police don't necessarily have the capacity yet to do basic law and order to the extent that we need it done in this country, so there are occasions where we have to go out and assist the Iraqis with what I would categorize as basic law and order when it's a state-owned industry."

The three largest buildings in this state-owned complex, a guard who worked here before the war said, stored the booty from Kuwait. He remembered chandeliers and many fine rugs. During the war, the guard said, Iraqi intelligence agents burned those buildings and their contents. And in the days after the fall of Baghdad, looters went on a mad shoplifting spree here.

"I took an air conditioner and sold it because I needed money," the man said through a translator. He still guards the complex.

When all of the stored goods were gone, the looters ripped out the lights, electrical wiring, plumbing fixtures, windows and doors.

And when that was all gone, they started stripping off and hauling away the sheet metal from the walls and roofs until the place had the look of a turkey carcass a week after Thanksgiving.

Raid by moonlight

On this chilly night, as light from a full moon appeared and disappeared behind low scuttling clouds, American soldiers in six Humvees, together with a half dozen local police in a pickup truck swept in on a raid to round up the looters who still come, sometimes in the hundreds and sometimes, the troops know full well, armed with AK47s and rocket-propelled grenades.

As the paratroopers dismounted, they heard from deep within the complex the hollow echoing bang of sledgehammers against steel, the low rumble of a large truck. Through their night-vision goggles, the entire scene looked like the grainy black-and-green imagery in popular computer war games.

The place, with its stink of sodden burned ruins, was eerie, surreal, spooky. You pick the adjective.

The plan was for the local police and the security guards - the Facilities Protection Service - to lead the way, backed up by the paratroopers.

"Let's try to push the FPS forward," 1st Lt. Nathanael Peterson, 24, told his squads as they prepared to sweep through the complex. Peterson led the third platoon of C Company, 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

It quickly became clear that the police, with no body armor, no night-vision goggles and armed only with pistols, weren't about to the lead the way into the complex's menacing black interior.

Peterson updated his squads on the radio: "We're going to keep trying to get the FPS to do their jobs, but if we're having trouble, then we need to be a little more aggressive with these looters. We'll maneuver up on 'em. … Try to drag the FPS along with us, but we don't want to come here and not do anything, over."

The men pick their way cautiously among the twisted metal girders and burned-out vehicle hulks when a burst of AK47 fire echoed through the complex.

"Three-Charlie, this is three-six. We got warning shots being fired from the front gate by the FPS," Peterson radioed his squads.

The worst thing that could happen in an operation like this is for U.S. troops to end up shooting at one another. Peterson, an Army brat who calls Fort Bragg, N.C., his hometown and who graduated from West Point, worries about that.

"Be advised that 3-5 is chasing those guys to the southwest," he radioed. "He's beating them towards you, so just make sure that you're aware of where he is, over."

The 82nd troops spend the next four hours in a game of high-stakes hide-and-seek. They round up 17 looters and manage to do so without a firefight. They burned two beat-up Russian-made trucks. Best of all, one of the looters fingered two of the guards as being on the take.

Capt. Chris Walls, 28, of Atlanta, the company commander, told one of the police who came along: "I think the greatest catch you've made tonight are these two men here. You can always find the Ali Baba," he said, using the agreed-upon slang for thief. "But it's hard to find the people that are cooperating with them."

The police officer smiled broadly. He agreed - it had been a good night. It had been fun. Walls believes that, despite their lackluster performance, the police are making progress. There was a time not long ago that the police didn't seem to understand that they had the power to actually arrest the Ali Baba.

Groundhog Day, Sunni Triangle

Two days later, driving past the warehouses, Walls saw a line of cars outside a break in the wall surrounding the complex. He raced up and most of the looters scattered. One leapt from his moving bus, did two somersaults and sprinted out of sight. His bus crashed into the wall. The captain allowed four old women in billowing black robes to haul off their white cloth sacks full of scrap metal, but he had his men use three SUVs to block the break in the wall. He then burned all of the vehicles.

"It seems like small stuff," Walls said. "But if you don't stop them, the big guys think they can come back. They're stealing from the government."

Walls recalled a chemical factory up the road that looters had passed by. Then, about a month ago, they moved in and stripped it bare in two days.

"That could have provided 800 jobs," Walls said as he watched a billowing oily black cloud of smoke rise from the burning vehicles.

The next day, when other paratroopers visited the warehouse, all of the burned vehicles were gone, the break in the wall was open and looters once again picked through the ruins.