Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Iraqis Move to Stem Looting

Volunteer organizations are emerging to clamp down on local theft and violence, filling the security vacuum left by American troops.
By Mohammed al-Jumaili

When the government of Saddam Hussein collapsed on April 9, Iraq fell into chaos. Looters attacked many government buildings and cultural institutions, and gave the world a terrible impression of Iraq and the Iraqi people. Away from the headlines, however, many true Iraqis tried to protect institutions and prevent a descent into total anarchy.

Some Iraqis confronted the bandits. Others refused to buy stolen good from the markets, no matter how inexpensive the goods were and how great their own need. Religious leaders called on the people to be true to their Islamic faith and abstain from all forms of criminality.

With American forces failing to deliver security in the wake of their capture of Baghdad, there were many local, grassroots initiatives to impose order – often by Muslim clerics who moved to fill the security vacuum left by the "liberators". In the al-Dabbash area of Baghdad’s al-Hurriya district, for example, the Imam of the local mosque, Ahmed al-Dabbash, called on the faithful to protect warehouses belonging to the Ministry of Health after looters stripped them and employees who had evacuated the premises appealed for help in restoring security.

As a result of his appeal, a group calling itself the Al-Dabbash Islamic Assembly organised armed guards and cars to carry out round-the-clock patrols of several large warehouses and administrative buildings. The group decided that looters would be disarmed and taken to the mosque. They would be made to write a confession, given a religious lesson - and then released. Mosque authorities said there was no alternative to release: they had been unable to find any official authorities – either Iraqi or American – to whom persons detained could be handed over.

The warehouses in al-Dabbash contain a large amount of much-needed medical equipment ranging from protective gloves to central cooling systems. They supply all the hospitals in Baghdad and, despite the looting, retain a three-month supply of stock.

Since the group began patrolling, volunteers said, warehouse employees had returned to work and there has been no further looting. In their first weeks, however, the guards thwarted several attempts to rob the warehouses and on one occasion thieves threw a grenade at a patrol. It failed to explode.

"The assembly took the lead in protecting the warehouses," said Jalil Abd al-Hassan Gholam, a pharmacist in charge of instruments at the al-Dabbash warehouses. "Because of our common efforts we have imposed security and ensured the continuity of this important work."

There have, however, been some, relatively minor problems. According to an employee at the State Company for Medical Supplies and Drugs, some members of the assembly prevented female workers who were not wearing headscarves from entering the warehouses. Dr. al-Dabbash, who holds a doctorate in Islamic law, said he had no knowledge of such a ban.

"Some individuals might have acted in that way to guide uncovered female workers and make them wear scarves," he said. "But it’s totally wrong to apply Islam in this way."

In addition to guarding the warehouses, the 100 or so volunteers in the assembly provide security for the whole neighbourhood. They supplied electricity to scores of homes by connecting an existing generator to new wiring, fixed the main water pipes and began repairing the sewage system pumps. They distribute to 1,450 families free food rations, paid for by the mosque, and have opened a health centre in the mosque for local residents.

The assembly is currently trying to make the transition from a volunteer society to something more official. Ten people have already been hired as guards for the State Company for Medical Supplies and Drugs. Thirty-five others have temporary contracts worth 3000 Iraqi dinars (roughly three dollars) a day.

Mohammed al-Jumaili is a reporter for al-Muajaha ("The Witness") an independent newspaper run by students and recent graduates in Baghdad.