OUTSIDE BASRA, Iraq - Villages here have fallen prey to bandits and looters, and residents of the area have warned of rising unrest during a siege of Basra by U.S. and British troops.
Without police since the war began nine days ago, villagers complain that by cooperating with the British military and turning in all their guns, they now are unable to protect themselves from members of the ruling Baath Party and thugs who are shaking down businesses and stealing cars, tankers, trucks, oil equipment and other property.
About 50 residents protested conditions Friday outside a makeshift British army compound in the village of Mushirij. Once occupied by the local Baath Party of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, the site is now being used by Zulu Company of the 1st Battalion of British Fusiliers.
The situation is even worse in Basra itself, according residents fleeing the city.
British forces are hesitant to move into Basra, the largest city in southern Iraq, because of what promises to be tough street-by-street resistance from the Fedayeen Saddam militias. Those militiamen fired mortars and machine guns on about 1,000 Iraqi civilians trying to leave the city Friday, British military officials and witnesses said. U.S. warplanes later destroyed a two-story building in the city where paramilitary members were believed to be meeting.
Villagers said the rising instability and lawlessness reflected poorly on coalition promises to rebuild Iraq and liberate its people from Hussein's dictatorship.
Several local men voiced that frustration as they watched suspected looters taken into custody by British troops.
"Ali Baba! Ali Baba!" the angry Iraqis shouted Friday to five men being escorted into the British military command post on suspicion of thievery.
"Why am I arrested?" one of the men asked a soldier.
"Because you are a thief!" a villager responded.
'They don't protect us'
Since the war began, bandits have been rifling through businesses and working-class homes clustered around an oil field and refinery where five companies employ thousands.
British and U.S. forces have encircled Basra but have not seized it. The British military, leading the offensive in southeastern Iraq, visibly stepped up security on highway perimeter checkpoints and at Basra International Airport, where the main entrance was closed Friday with a sand berm and several guard stations were installed.
But rural Iraqis said the British haven't done enough to protect them and haven't the manpower to police their communities. Two men asked for a British tank to protect their business from looters, expecting an affirmative response. None came.
"Sometimes the British do something [to discourage thievery], but they don't know who's the thief and who's the civilian," said a 47-year-old man who is an engineer at one of the five companies.
"You see the situation: America occupies us and they say they protect us, and now they don't protect us," the man said. "If they don't protect us in the oil fields, how do we defend ourselves?"
Villagers wondered whether they were experiencing a repeat of the 1991 Persian Gulf war, when U.S. forces stopped short of liberating the Basra area, leaving anti-Hussein insurgents unprotected from brutal retaliation once the war was over.
Basra residents weren't the only ones frustrated by the situation. Maj. Duncan McSporran, 35, Zulu Company commander, said the military was not a police force, but British soldiers were policing villages anyway.
"I am the sheriff, aren't I?" he said. "Yes, that's one of my many functions. I'm here as a soldier and not a peacemaker. But it's all interlinked as we try to get to normality."
On Friday, troops intensified security measures by forcing Iraqis out of their pickup trucks and searching them and their vehicles; last week, soldiers declined to ask Iraqis to get out of their pickup trucks and asked questions from the roadbed.
"We're conscious of the fact that there is a void in the country," McSporran said, referring to law enforcement. "We don't have the manpower, and we try to get across the fact that they shouldn't steal."
But the sense that Hussein's political forces were still at work in the villages was evident in how one Iraqi man who spoke excellent English was afraid to talk to reporters Friday.
Wary of how 40 curious neighbors were gathered around him, he said, "Don't ever come back here again looking for me."
Michael Martinez is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.