From palace ashtrays and pillows to jeeps and a grand piano, the spoils of war are disappearing fast in Iraq.
Civilians have plundered with little fear of retribution and some American soldiers have helped themselves to battlefield souvenirs.
Looting has flared in nearly lawless Iraq as coalition forces wipe out the forces of President Saddam Hussein and his ruling Baath Party infrastructure.
Opportunists have seized whatever they can – looking for an easy windfall, revenge against the regime or even mementoes of the fight.
After a tank battle in the town of Az Zubayr, Iraqis leisurely picked through government offices, stealing radios, metal bed frames and an air conditioner. Others made off with a military jeep.
In nearby Basra, some residents raided the offices of the Central Bank, streaming out with chairs, tables and carpets.
Looters at the Sheraton Hotel loaded sofas into horse-drawn carts, and even wheeled the hotel’s grand piano off down the street.
But Iraqis are not alone in seizing the moment. During the march on Baghdad, US troops pocketed items of their own – despite military rules forbidding it.
Yesterday, troops from the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division stormed one of Iraq’s presidential palaces.
They used Saddam’s toilets, but also rifled through documents and helped themselves to ashtrays, pillows, gold-painted Arab glassware and other souvenirs.
A US Central Command spokesman, Navy Ensign David Luckett, said the command had not heard such reports through military channels, but condemned the behaviour.
“We are making great efforts to preserve the natural resources of Iraq and any of the belongings of the Iraqi people for the Iraqi people,” Luckett said.
Marine Capt Stewart Upton, a Centcom spokesman in Qatar, said troops suspected of looting would be first reprimanded by field officers and ordered to return the items. Penalties under military law could include a reduction in pay or even prison time.
“We expect our officers, our military, our coalition forces to conduct themselves in an honourable manner,” Upton said.
Coalition troops most often find themselves trying to prevent looting by Iraqis.
US commanders posted 24hr guards at Baghdad Airport’s duty-free shop, to prevent the looting of alcohol. And British troops have stepped up patrols in Basra to restore order.
In the war’s opening days, Kurdish militiamen in northern Iraq pledged to prevent looting in areas relinquished by the Iraqis. But those good intentions unravelled last week.
Thousands of Kurds swarmed abandoned Iraqi bunkers and barracks near Kalaka in a free-for-all that the Kurdish militia made no attempt to halt. Among the participants was Ishmail Hasan, who loaded his motorcycle sidecar with chairs, cooking pots, car batteries and a plastic foam cooler.
“I’m keeping some and selling the rest,” he said. “Thank you, Saddam.”
The dangers of unexploded shells and possible mine fields in the area was overlooked in the rush.
The temptation to loot is strong among people who have been repressed and impoverished for more than two decades by Saddam’s dictatorial rule, said Flight Lt Peter Darling, a spokesman for British forces at Central Command. Some start stealing as an act of revenge.
“They felt they ought to be taking back what was really theirs,” Darling said. “They began to realise that the people who had been ruling them, the Baath Party officials, had been living in phenomenal opulence. And it was natural for them to want to do some sort of readjustment.”