Delirious joy and looting as city takes back freedom

By Richard Edwards in Basra

Scattered in the gutters of Basra high street, a pile of Iraqi dinars blew back and forth in the dust, bearing the muddied face of Saddam Hussein.

On the backs of bicycles, men heaved 6ft loads of wicker chairs, wooden panels and burnt mattresses piled above their heads. This was the symbol of a people breaking free from the shackles of oppression.

After 24 years of tyrannical rule, British troops have brought freedom to Basra. Silence in the streets has been replaced by laughter, fear overwhelmed by expressions of joy.

The jubilation ranged from dancing and cheering to looting properties throughout the city centre. People who have known no extravagance and lived a deprived existence for three decades now loaded their shoulders, bicycles and donkey carts with as much as they could carry.

One white pickup truck hauled seven pine doors through the sultry streets. Another carried a three-piece suite.

All around the city, children, women and old men scuttled through the debris, waving at soldiers, wrinkles in their troubled faces turning to impish grins.

They stripped the grand buildings bare, every sign of past Ba’ath party control was destroyed. One man balanced a filing cabinet precariously on the handlebars of his rusty, buckling bike.

A child clutched a lamp and a chair to his small frame and stopped to offer a greeting and a smile. “Hello, Hello. Britani, Beckham,” he said.

At every junction, people wobbled past, clasping desperately to all they could hold. Down each avenue was another waving man, one eye smiling at the soldiers of the 7th Armoured Brigade, the other carefully watching his loot.

It was not a feeling of anarchy but an explosion of uncontrollable relief and joy.

The Sheraton Hotel, pockmarked and stained since the uprising of March 1991, yesterday looked as though another bomb had hit its fragile foundations.

It had been stripped of all but its marble floors and the dirt that covered them.

Every window was smashed and as the sun shone through the gaping spaces in the wall, it shed light on nothing but ripped pieces of cardboard boxes spread across the floor. They had been used to carry away the spoils. Parts of the majestic building had also been flooded.

In the reflections of the puddle were more looters, throwing mattresses, carpets and floral suites out of the windows for pickup trucks waiting below.

One woman in black struggled to drag a broken bookcase through three inches of water and fragments of broken glass.

Hundreds of people also targeted banks. They took everything except the Iraqi dinar. This symbol of Saddam was left worthless, trodden into the dirt streets. Murals of the dictator were ripped from their roots and cast on to the ground.

One man, desperate to show his hatred of his ruler, took off his right shoe and beat a portrait of the despised Saddam.

Another man stood on top of the giant portrait. He looked as though he had pinned the tyrant to the floor with his boot.

As Basra realised its freedom, the symbolism was powerful. The sun set and the streets slowly cleared.

All that was left were the tanks and the scraps of Saddam posters and bank notes, the sorry debris of a crumbling regime.

Meanwhile, a mile away, the first shots of a zero-tolerance policing policy had already been fired.

It was a hot and humid morning and the stuffy atmosphere had an air of tension after the celebrations of the night before.

Troops patrolled the main entrances to the city throughout the small hours but were aware counterattacks and pockets of resistance may still exist.

Then, at 6am, screams rang out from the Teaching Hospital on the eastern side of the town and civilians ran up to British tanks to tell them a soldier was stealing a casualty vehicle.

They asked for help and as the car sped away down a street, troops opened fire.

Shots rattled around us, echoing off the part-demolished rust-coloured buildings.

A hospital doctor thanked the soldiers.

“We have no Government here now,” he said. “We need protection otherwise we will have anarchy.”