AMARAH, Iraq — Iraqis looted a military base vacated by British troops and stripped it of virtually everything removable on Friday, an indication of possible future trouble for U.S.-led coalition forces hoping to hand over security gradually to the Iraqi government.
Men, some with their faces covered, ripped corrugated metal from roofs, carried off metal pipes and backed trucks into building entrances to load them with wooden planks. Many also took away doors and window frames from Camp Abu Naji.
“The British forces left Abu Naji, and the locals started looting everything,” 1st Lt. Rifaat Taha Yaseen of the Iraqi Army’s 10th Division told Associated Press Television News. “They took everything from the buildings.”
The plundering was likely to embarrass the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has said that Iraqi army and police plan to take over security for all of Iraq’s provinces within the next 18 months.
America’s overall strategy calls for the U.S.-led coalition forces to redeploy to larger bases and let Iraqis become responsible for their security in specific regions. The larger bases can act in a support or reserve role. A final stage would involve the drawdown of troops from Iraq.
Camp Abu Naji, 200 miles southeast of Baghdad, had come under almost daily attack when the Britons were in control, an indication of the hostility for foreign troops.
It was first invaded by a handful of Iraqis on Thursday, hours after 1,200 British troops pulled out to redeploy along the border with Iran to crack down on weapons smuggling.
Police unable to stop looters
Iraqi police dispersed looters by firing shots into the air, said Dhaffar Jabbar, spokesman for the governor of the southern Maysan province where Amarah is located. But scores of looters returned Friday when the camp was under a small contingent of Iraqi troops.
“There are only a few soldiers at Abu Naji camp. Some of the residents were carrying weapons so they (the soldiers) did not want bloodshed and with such a big number, they could not stop them,” Jabbar said.
Jabbar appeared to indicate that Friday’s fiasco was the result of miscommunication, complaining that the British withdrawal had caught them unaware.
But the British military rejected the assertion, with Maj. Charlie Burbridge saying the hand-over was coordinated with Amarah authorities 24 hours in advance.
“It was understood that the governor was likely to use the camp as a police training camp,” Burbridge said in an e-mail Thursday, adding that Iraqi forces had secured the base after the British soldiers left.
In the midst of the looting, one man who refused to give his name, said: “This is war loot, and we are allowed to take it.”
U.S. troops fire at mosque
Elsewhere, five people were killed across the country and U.S. forces fired tank rounds at a mosque in the restive city of Ramadi during a gunbattle with militants inside, damaging the dome and the minaret.
Militants inside the Al Qadir Al Kilami mosque fired small arms, machine guns and rocket propelled grenades at U.S. forces, a statement by the U.S. command said. They also hurled hand grenades and a bomb, it said.
American soldiers returned fire at first, and finally unleashed several rounds from M1 tanks into the mosque, said the statement.
“The mosque suffered serious structural damage to the dome and minaret,” it said.
Ramadi police reported that three people were killed and 23 people were wounded, but it was not possible to confirm the information independently. The U.S. statement said enemy and civilian casualties were unknown, but one soldier was injured and later returned to duty.
Ramadi, located 70 miles west of Baghdad, is the capital of Anbar province, a vast area where support for Sunni insurgency runs strong. Most American combat casualties this month have been in Anbar.
Elsewhere, two worshippers were killed at a Shiite mosque in the southern city of Basra during an exchange of fire between the mosque guards and gunmen. A police officer was killed in a drive-by shooting in downtown Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad.
Iraqi army soldiers reportedly shot and killed two recruits and injured 10 others outside a recruiting center in southern Kut after they threw hand grenades.
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