Looting Thwarts Plans for Quick Iraq Recovery

Surprised by the extent of the damage, U.S. officials see delays in hunting Hussein's aides, restoring oil output and finding banned arms.

April 18, 2003|Bob Drogin and Warren Vieth | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The spree of looting and destruction across Iraq is hampering Bush administration efforts to revive the country's economy, search for chemical and biological weapons, and hunt for Saddam Hussein and his top lieutenants, U.S. officials said Thursday.

They said that neither the Pentagon nor the U.S. intelligence community anticipated the scale and ferocity of the postwar rampage, which appears to have caused far more damage in some areas than did the war.

Officials have only begun to gauge the effects. But as an example, the looting of many oil production facilities, field offices and warehouses is expected to delay efforts to restore the flow of crude oil, which provides virtually all of Iraq's revenue, government and industry experts said.

Similarly, the removal or destruction of sensitive documents from national and regional offices of Iraq's spy services and secret police agencies has complicated efforts to hunt down members of Hussein's high command.

"A lot of times the documents have been looted or removed before we get there," said an intelligence official at the Pentagon, which is responsible for collecting and analyzing the regime's records. "We're seeing it across the board.

"At the same time we're looking for material, you have Iraqis looking for records about family members," the official said. "And you have a lot of people who don't want their names found in the files. So they're removing or burning the stuff."

In other cases, fleeing Iraqi officials apparently removed incriminating records before U.S. forces arrived. Nearly every file was taken from the Baghdad headquarters of the Mukhabarat, Iraq's main internal security service. Most furniture and other equipment was left untouched, so random looters are not suspected.

"The whole place had been scrubbed," said another U.S. intelligence official. "The headquarters had been emptied."

Some files and sophisticated equipment also have been taken from the Tuwaitha nuclear research complex outside Baghdad, an ammunition manufacturing facility near Karbala and several other institutions where U.S. officials suspect banned weapons may have been produced or stored.

Citing these and other apparent efforts by the regime to hide or destroy evidence, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld cast doubt Thursday on the likelihood that U.S. teams searching suspect sites in Iraq will find any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

"I don't think we'll discover anything, myself," Rumsfeld told a town hall meeting at the Pentagon. "I think what will happen is we'll discover people who will tell us where to go find it. It is not like a treasure hunt, where you just run around looking everywhere, hoping you find something. I just don't think that's going to happen."

One U.S. official said the Pentagon was caught off-guard because of its recent experience in Afghanistan. "There wasn't much looting there," the official said. "Frankly, there wasn't that much to steal."

Headlines have focused on the theft and destruction of priceless antiquities from Baghdad's Iraq Museum, the torching of the Koranic library and the national archives, and the ransacking of hospitals, banks, embassies, hotels, offices and homes. In many cases, U.S. troops did nothing to intervene, though patrols have been stepped up in recent days.

But looting also took place in Iraq's oil fields, which Rumsfeld has said were under U.S. military control.

The mayhem there raises questions about an apparent decision by U.S. military officials to provide tight security at wellheads and refineries but to let vandals ransack other areas.

So far, reports from the oil fields are anecdotal, and the full extent of damage and theft remains undetermined.

But recent news reports from northern fields indicate that vandals have emptied warehouses of spare parts, stolen computers containing geologic and production data, ransacked offices where field records were kept, and driven away every state oil company car, truck and bulldozer they could commandeer.

"It's not the wells. It's the computers, the trucks, the tools," said energy economist Philip K. Verleger Jr. of the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based research center.

"The military's goal was to make sure that nobody got to the wellheads or blew anything up. They did a great job," he said. "Apparently nobody thought about the field offices or the trucks or what people might go around and steal."

Energy analysts said a shortage of parts and machinery would complicate and possibly delay the restoration of Iraqi oil production, which was averaging about 2 million barrels a day before the war.

But a potentially bigger concern would be the loss of critical information contained in the computers carted off by looters, they said.

"The data may be in the computers, and the computers are gone," said Robert Ebel, a former CIA oil analyst who heads the energy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research and policy organization in Washington.

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