The criminals are better organised than Iraq's occupation administration

In the city of Basra, Saddam Hussein erected 100 giant statues, cast in copper, of Iraqi military heroes killed in the Iran-Iraq war. They stood on plinths on a long quay beside the Shatt al-Arab waterway, their right arms raised and their fingers pointing in a threatening gesture towards the Iranian border a few miles away.

The statues were a tempting target for Iraqi looters, eager to sell the copper. They have all been torn from their plinths and, with one exception, sold for scrap. The sole surviving statue is of General Adnan Khairallah Tulfah, a cousin of Saddam Hussein and a former minister of defence, whom the Iraqi leader is widely believed in Iraq to have murdered.

It is a rare example of Iraqi looters being discriminating what they stole.

In Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer, the American official heading the occupation administration called the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), says that public order is being restored.

But one experienced international aid official in Basra said: "The Iraqi criminals have been quicker to organise than the CPA. It is rather like the rise of the Russian Mafia after the collapse of the Soviet Union."

The aid official pointed out that around Basra only nine large masts carrying electrical wire had been destroyed during the war but no less than 120 have been stolen since. He said: "It requires organisation and special equipment to take down these masts and sell the metal. Looting has not ended. It has just become more professional.

The failure to restore public order is first on the list of Iraqis' complaints against the US and British occupation 10 weeks after the fall of Baghdad. All over Iraq there is a prevailing sense of personal insecurity, with chilling tales of murder and theft exacerbated by rumour.

Adel Hameed Raheem, a teacher of English literature in Basra, said: "In my college parents are mostly keeping their daughters at home because they are terrified of them being kidnapped."

Iraqis often bitterly contrast their own lack of personal safety with massive precautions taken by the CPA officials to protect themselves inside Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace.

Certainly Iraqi criminals now show a brazen self-confidence, unaffected by columns of American armour patrolling the streets of Baghdad.

If, for example, you want to buy a stolen car in the capital,you go to Saadun Street in the centre of the city where they are on sale from 4-5pm. The thieves expect transactions to be swift, and in cash. Many cars are immediately driven to Iraqi Kurdistan and then, using unguarded smugglers' roads, across the border into Iran.

These are cars often taken in the previous few hours. One man spotted his own, just taken at gunpoint, on sale in Saadun Street but said: "I did not dare demand it back myself, of course, because I saw that the car thieves all had pistols hidden in their belts and there were no police I could ask to help me."

In Baghdad in particular the sense of personal insecurity felt by Iraqis is exacerbated by the failure to get public services working. At the beginning of this week there was no water supply in most of the capital and electricity supply was intermittent in a city where at the height of summer the temperature can reach 60C. Long queues formed outside the limited number of petrol stations that have their own generators to pump petrol.

The grinding difficulties and dangers of day-to-day life are eating up political capital the US and Britain gained among Iraqis by overthrowing Saddam and his regime. A few still think he might return - this is connected to a paranoid suspicion that his sudden flight was pre-arranged with Washington - but a more realistic fear is of individual killings by former members of his security service.

In Basra, a Shia city where Saddam Hussein was particularly loathed, Abdul Jabar al-Shawi, a local leader of the Dawa, an Islamic party persecuted by the former regime, said: "For us Saddam really is history. There are 24 million Iraqis and at most two million of them ever supported him. There are surviving Baathists around here, but they live in dark places like rats."

Democracy has also flourished in unlikely places. In Basra yesterday the local branch of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society (IRCS), whose volunteers heroically braved the bombing to help victims of the war, were electing a new local leader because his predecessor was too closely linked to the Baath party. "The old leaders are not acceptable to the people," said Dr Jamal al-Karboli, the head of the IRCS in Baghdad.

In the main neurological hospital in the capital, Dr Ayad al-Dahwi said: "I have just been re-elected to run the hospital, though in fact I've already been doing so for 13 years." He added, gently, that he wondered if it had really been necessary for the hospital's chief matron to also run for election, but appeared happy at the outcome.

Dr Dahwi and another distinguished neurosurgeon Professor Saad al-Whitref genially argued about the traumatic events of the past three months. They agreed, bad though he was, Iraqis were acclimatised to the evils of Saddam's regime. The ferocity of the looters, mostly from the working-class Shia slum of al-Thawra was "like a social revolution after 35 years of humiliation". But the prevailing insecurity of their life dominated their conversation.

Saddam did not leave an easy legacy for whoever succeeded him. Under the old regime all power flowed from him and without him and there are now no clear lines of authority. The CPA has so far proved incapable of replacing the administration.

The influential International Crisis Group is also scathing about the US officials. In a recent report it says: "Concerned about their personal safety, permitted to move about the city only with a military escort, preoccupied with turf battles, and largely unknowing of Iraq and Iraqis they venture from the grounds of the former Saddam Hussein palace that is their headquarters only infrequently and have minimal interaction with the population."

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