Baghdad slips into lawlessness as its defences crumble

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The Independent Online

The road into Baghdad was lined with thousands of people. Some were waving, some were frowning and some appeared unsure whether to wave or frown. Others were too busy looting even to look up.

The road into Baghdad was lined with thousands of people. Some were waving, some were frowning and some appeared unsure whether to wave or frown. Others were too busy looting even to look up.

Baghdad is falling – of that there seems little doubt. Yesterday there was so much American armour pouring though the debris-strewn streets into the south, east and west of the city that it seems now only a matter of days, perhaps even hours, before Allied forces claim they have secured the Iraqi capital. That will be when the real challenge begins.

"I think it's fair to say that we're entering the endgame in regard to Baghdad," said Col John Pomfret, a cigar-chomping US Marines officer with a swagger straight out of Hollywood. "I think we are there. But the question is what do we do? How do we restore order?"

Just as it is clear that Baghdad is slipping out of the control of the Iraqi regime, so is it equally obvious that the outskirts of the city are slipping into lawlessness.

As with other Iraqi cities such as Nasiriyah, where the regime's grip has been broken, the south-east of Baghdad is rife with looters, collecting everything they can from government buildings and stripping vehicles bare, in some cases while they are still smouldering.

Most of the smouldering vehicles that lined the route into the city yesterday were Russian-made Iraqi armour – tanks and armoured vehicles destroyed by the advancing US forces. They lay scattered across the highways, some standing in obviously strategic positions and some in seemingly odd locations, caught and destroyed perhaps as they were retreating from the Allies.

General Jim Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division, was astonishingly dismissive of the Iraqi forces. They were cowards, he said, who had hidden behind the skirts of women and children. Most lacked the "manliness" to make a fight of it and had broken all the rules of war. "This was as despicable an enemy as we have ever fought," he said.

Why was it, General Mattis was asked, that given the boasts that the Allies would take Baghdad in seven days that this bunch of despicable cowards had held up the US and British troops for almost three weeks? "I never received orders to take Baghdad in three weeks," he replied.

Whatever the general wanted to claim, it was clear that Iraqi forces had put up something of a fight, and indeed were still fighting last night – at least in the east of the city. The area surrounding the four bridges over the river Diyala has seen particularly fierce fighting in recent days. Two of the bridges visited yesterday by The Independent had been destroyed. The surrounding areas were littered with burnt-out vehicles and damaged buildings and the roads were covered in spent cartridge cases.

On the west side side of the bridge in the Al Kannit district, about two or three miles from the city centre, stood a large surface-to-air missile, its make and model still being investigated by the US forces.

Close by lay the corpses of four Iraqis, three partly covered with blankets and one – that of a small, slightly-built man – lying in a broken heap. He looked like a civilian. "No. Military," Col Pomfret said. "They have been changing in and out of uniform and civilian clothes all the time. He'll have to be buried soon. He was only killed recently – last night."

It was impossible to tell what the others were dressed in without removing the blankets covering their bodies, but one was wearing flip-flops while another had no shoes. They had already attracted swarms of flies.

The Iraqis gathered at the other bridge were very much alive and demanding to know why they were being stopped by the Americans from entering the city, across the bridge which US forces had already partly repaired. It was three days, they said, since they had been able to enter the area and their families were on the other side.

Many of the Iraqis were quick to give the thumbs-up to soldiers they met, chanting that Saddam was bad and that Bush was good. One young man stamped the ground as he shouted the name of the Iraqi leader with derision. Theatrically, he then withdrew a 250-dinar note from his wallet and spat on President Saddam's picture.

What do the Iraqis really think of the arrival of the Americans? General Mattis said he had been delighted to see the crowds of cheering civilians, but then again the people of Cambodia had initially cheered the Khmer Rouge when they rolled into Phnom Penh. Are they really cheering when the troops are not there to watch?

It is the million-dollar question, but the answer is probably unsatisfying. Here, as in the rest of Iraq, some people appear pleased, while others are not. Most hope it will improve their lives. Many are angry that they or their homes have been damaged by Allied bombs. The full picture will probably only become apparent as efforts get under way to rebuild Iraq.

"Saddam is no good. We want freedom," Casir Hassan, a young mechanic, said. A slightly older man, Shaqir Ayyad, a teacher, said: "Short time, America OK. Long time, no."