BAGHDAD (AFP) – More than 100 children held in a prison celebrated their freedom as US marines rolled into northeast Baghdad amid chaotic scenes which saw civilians loot weapons from an army compound, a US officer said.
Around 150 children spilled out of the jail after the gates were opened as a US military Humvee vehicle approached, Lieutenant Colonel Fred Padilla told an AFP correspondent travelling with the Marines 5th Regiment.
“Hundreds of kids were swarming us and kissing us,” Padilla said.
“There were parents running up, so happy to have their kids back.”
“The children had been imprisoned because they had not joined the youth branch of the Baath party,” he alleged. “Some of these kids had been in there for five years.”
The children, who were wearing threadbare clothes and looked under-nourished, walked on the streets crossing their hands as if to mimic handcuffs, before giving the thumbs up sign and shouting their thanks.
It was not clear who had opened the doors of the prison.
Civilians also took advantage of the collapse of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s authority to grab weapons from an army base, said Group Sergeant Jeff Treiber.
As marines were alerted by radio that civilians had seized weapons, Treiber warned that anyone seen to be armed could be a target of US-British coalition forces.
“With the weapons they are becoming combatants,” said Treiber. “If they don’t take the weapons they will be fine.”
Other residents stole air conditioning units, television sets and furniture from government buildings in an echo of the looting that was seen in the southern city of Basra.
A 19-year-old called Haider said people had been ransacking government compounds since the morning to steal weapons and furniture.
“Since the morning, nine o’clock, they have been looting. They are stealing weapons and I took three doors,” he said.
At one stage the marines opened fire after coming under attack from snipers, leaving at least two civilians wounded.
One man needed treatment for gunshot wounds to his stomach and left arm.
But his friend, Abdul Amir Jaffa, said he did not resent the Americans despite the shooting.
“Americans are coming to free us,” he told AFP.
The marines became increasingly edgy as crowds of people took to the streets to observe their progress.
“It’s a problem with so many people in the area. Its hard to tell if there are enemy forces among them. You have to be careful returning fire with civilians all over the place,” Lieutenant Anthony Sousa said.
Troops from the Marines’ 1st Expeditionary Force also entered Baghdad on the east of the city Tuesday as thousands of armoured vehicles and Humvees poured into the capital for a showdown with Saddam Hussein’s troops.