April 10, 2003
Posted at: 12:26 p.m. CDT
BAGHDAD, Iraq - Four U.S. Marines were wounded Thursday night when an apparent suicide attacker detonated explosives at a U.S. checkpoint in central Baghdad.
The suicide attack occurred about 7:30 p.m. (11:30 a.m. EDT) near the Palestine Hotel, where most foreign journalists are staying. It also is near Firdos Square, where a large statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down a day earlier.
Marine Capt. Joe Plenzler said that according to initial reports, "a man strapped with explosives approached a Marine checkpoint and detonated himself." He had no further details on their condition.
The Iraqi regime had warned that suicide attacks would be "routine military policy," and American troops have been wary of approaching civilians.
A week ago, two Iraqi women blew themselves up in an attack on U.S. forces, killing three American soldiers in western Iraq.
On March 29, a bomber posing as a taxi driver pulled up to a roadblock north of Najaf, waved to American troops for help, then blew up his vehicle up as they approached, killing four..
On Sunday, U.S. soldiers killed six Iraqi fighters wearing the head bands and clothes of Islamic suicide attackers on the southern outskirts of Baghdad.
Earlier Thursday, looters surged through Baghdad and government buildings were set on fire as U.S. troops fought fierce gunbattles with pockets of Iraqi forces. Several artillery shells hit the U.S.-held Old Presidential compound as night fell.
In and around the capital, skirmishes blazed between American troops and holdout Saddam loyalists. Bursts of gunfire and explosions echoed across the city nearly a day after the people of Baghdad danced in the streets over the fall of Saddam.
At least two explosions rocked the southern end of the Old Palace presidential compound Thursday evening, starting several small fires. U.S. Army troops occupying the compound appeared to return fire with tank cannons. There was no report of casualties.
Marines seized a palace on the northern outskirts of the capital earlier in the day in a fierce, seven-hour battle that killed one Marine and wounded as many as 20. Marines also battled holdout fighters at a Baghdad mosque and the house of a leader of Saddam's Baath Party.
In the northwest of the city, small groups of Iraqi fighters were seen at sandbag positions and hiding behind bushes. There was no sign of American forces except at one road intersection. Streets were deserted and stores closed.
Elsewhere, though, tens of thousands of people — young and old, men and women — roamed the city in the second round of looting since Wednesday. American troops made little effort to stop people as they carried off TV sets, refrigerators, carpets and other plunder.
Columns of U.S. troops moving through the city drew cheers, and Iraqis handed flowers to Marines guarding the Interior Ministry building.
Many of the looters headed into the city center from the poor outlying districts with wheelbarrows and pushcarts, intent on getting their share of booty.
Some Iraqis organized informally to try to quell the theft.
At al-Kindi hospital, medical school students went out into the neighborhood to retrieve medicines and other materials that had been looted Wednesday. They returned to the hospital cheering on double-decker buses loaded with boxes of medicine.
In Saddam City, a poor, densely populated Shiite Muslim section of Baghdad, residents set up roadblocks and confiscated looted items, sending them to a mosque, said a religious leader, Amar Al-Saadi.
U.S. troops received orders Thursday to begin trying to stop the looting, but they were only just beginning to devise ways to do so.
"There's civilian looting like crazy, all over the place. There just aren't enough of us to clear it out," said Marine Lance Cpl. Darren Pickard, 20, of Merced, Calif., who was trying to protect an Iraqi police academy compound that was being picked over by looters.
Reinforcements had to be called in to help protect the compound's armory, which included hundreds of rifles along with grenades, knives, pistols and mortars.
At U.S. Central Command in Qatar, Maj. Gen. Gene Renuart said the Iraqis' anger toward symbols of the regime was not surprising after years of oppression. He said the U.S. military's civil affairs teams would work with neighborhood leaders to try to restore calm while the Iraqis rebuilt their police force.
He said curfews were possible, but "our intent is not to be heavy-handed, but it is to ensure that stability is brought back to the areas." He said the military hopes to establish "compassionate relationships with members of the community."
Iraqis who had fled Baghdad before U.S. troops arrived were seen streaming back into the Al-Jazeera area, some in buses and cars and some on foot. They cheered a passing convoy of American troops.
Smoke billowed from buildings across Baghdad. Marines said Iraqi holdouts were setting fire to their own quarters and blaming the Americans. In at least one case, however, looters were seen setting fire to some buildings in the Interior Ministry complex.
U.S. troops occupied the Oil Ministry. But the nine-story Ministry of Transport building and the Iraqi Olympic headquarters were gutted by fire and the Ministry of Education was partially burned. Near the Interior Ministry, the office building of Saddam's son Odai stood damaged, its upper floors blackened.
Drivers zipping by the Interior Ministry honked their horns, waved and gave the thumbs-up sign to Marine combat engineers guarding the Interior Ministry complex.
"My thumb is getting tired," said one Marine, Kurt Gellert, 27, of Atlantic City, N.J. "It's actually pretty cool. It's like all this was worth something now."
Pedestrians offered flowers to the Marine guards, and a few women teasingly asked Gellert to marry them. Some passers-by invited the Marines to come to their homes and use the phone to call home. "That was tempting," Gellert said.
A building on fire near the Interior Ministry was rocked by deafening explosions apparently caused by ammunition and rockets stashed inside. The blasts went on for more than 15 minutes. No immediate injuries were reported.
Marines set up checkpoints at the heart of the city, conducting thorough searches of all vehicles and body searches of passengers and drivers. Some Marines crouched behind sandbags, weapons at the ready, as the searches were conducted.
Around the city, looters hit stores and government installations, including the Irrigation Ministry, the Transport Ministry, the Air Force officers club, the government computer center, the Olympic hospital and state laboratories.
People streamed out of As-Salaam presidential palace carrying sofas, chest of drawers and sofas. They held smaller items in carpets and blankets. Inside, dust and debris from bombing covered the marble floor of a third-floor bedroom suite with 25-foot ceilings.
The German Embassy, a three-story off-white building in the center of al-Karada district, also was sacked. Looters emerged with air conditioners and computers. Mobs also cleaned out the French Cultural Center and Odai's house, the Arab TV network Al-Jazeera reported.
In the city center, donkey carts were loaded with office furniture, TV sets, appliances and carpets.
On Wednesday, after looting first broke out in Baghdad, U.S. Central Command officers said American civil affairs troops were there and in other cities to help Iraqis move away from lawlessness and re-establish order.
However, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said he expected much of the unrest to die down on its own as the euphoria over the regime's collapse wore off. "We believe that this will settle down in due time," he said.
Around Baghdad, most motorists were flying white flags. Some public buses were even running.
The Interior Ministry offices are being turned into a command center for U.S. forces, who went through them to see what they could find.
Saddam pictures, posters, calendars and oil paintings adorned practically every surface. Some pictures of his face had been cut out or punched in with fists before U.S. forces got there. Some Marines, encountering large pictures of Saddam with his face cut out, posed for pictures with their own faces thrust through the hole.
Two floors down from the Interior Minister's office was the office of an unidentified three-star general. On the bookshelf behind his desk sat a gold-embossed, green-leather volume dating to the 1990s. It resembled a family photo album, but the pictures — page after page — were of bombed-out buildings and charred, mangled corpses.