BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. forces reopened two strategic bridges Saturday in the heart of Baghdad and crowds of looters surged across — taking advantage of access to new territory that had not already been plundered. U.S. forces did nothing to stop them.
Iraqis expressed increasing frustration over the lawlessness that has gripped the capital since the arrival of U.S. troops and the fall of Saddam Hussein. Looters ransacked government buildings, hospitals and schools, and trashed the National Museum, taking or destroying many of the country's archaeological treasures.
A museum employee arrived Saturday to find the administrative offices trashed by looters. The only thing she could salvage was a telephone book-sized volume. She refused to give her name. With tears, she said, "It is all the fault of the Americans. This is Iraq's civilization. And it's all gone now."
An elderly museum guard said hundreds of looters attacked Thursday and carried away artifacts on pushcarts and wheelbarrows. The two-story museum's marble staircase was chipped, suggesting looters might have dragged heavier items down on pushcarts or slabs of wood. Glass display cases were shattered and broken pieces of ancient pottery and statues were scattered everywhere.
The National Museum held artifacts from thousands of years of history in the Tigris-Euphrates basin, widely held to be the site of the world's earliest civilizations. Before the war, the museum closed its doors and secretly placed the most precious artifacts in storage, but the metal storeroom doors were smashed and everything was taken.
"This is the property of this nation and is the treasure of 7,000 years of civilization," said museum employee Ali Mahmoud. "What does this country think it is doing?"
On Baghdad's chaotic streets, it appeared American troops were doing nothing to curb the feverish looting. Troops could be seen waving looters through checkpoints and standing idly in front of buildings while they were being pillaged.
Looters swarmed over the Al-Rasheed and the Al-Jumhuriya bridges across the Tigris River, which divides the city. They pushed into several government buildings, including the Planning Ministry, which sits on the edge of the old palace presidential compound on the river's west bank.
Looters were also seen coming out of the Foreign Ministry carrying office furniture, TV sets and air conditioners. Children wheeled out office chairs and rolled them down the street.
U.S. soldiers stood by at the presidential compound as looters some 400 yards away hauled bookshelves, computers and sofas from the Planning Ministry. Bands of men with tools plundered cars nearby for wheels or other parts.
"The Americans have disappointed us all. This country will never be operational for at least a year or two," said Abbas Reda, 51, an engineer and father of five.
"I've seen nothing new since Saddam's fall," he said. "All that we have seen is looting. The Americans are responsible. One round from their guns and all the looting would have stopped."
U.S. Army troops and armor blocked access to the main palace grounds. The Oil Ministry also seemed intact with a heavy U.S. military presence inside. Also intact were some of the power installations, power stations and power grids.
Al-Jazeera's correspondent in Baghdad, Maher Abdallah, described the situation as "tragic," and suggested it could have been prevented.
"They have ousted the regime and the authority, and in such an urban area where there is no tribal authority or rule, chaos should have been expected to break in such a way," Abdallah said.
U.S. officials insist the restoration of law and order will become a higher priority.
The State Department said Friday it was sending 26 police and judicial officers to Iraq, the first component of a team that will eventually number about 1,200. The officers will be part of a group led by Jay Garner, the retired general chosen by the Bush administration to run the initial Iraqi civil administration under American occupation.