Amarah, Iraq Iraqis looted a military base vacated by British troops and stripped it of virtually everything removable Friday, an indication of possible future trouble for U.S.-led coalition forces hoping to hand over security gradually to the Iraqi government.
Men, some with their faces covered, ripped corrugated metal from roofs, carried off metal pipes and backed trucks into building entrances to load them with wooden planks. Many also took away doors and window frames from Camp Abu Naji.
"The British forces left Abu Naji and the locals started looting everything," 1st Lt. Rifaat Taha Yaseen of the Iraqi Army's 10th Division told Associated Press Television News. "They took everything from the buildings."
The plundering was likely to embarrass the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has said that Iraqi army and police plan to take over security for all of Iraq's provinces within the next 18 months.
America's overall strategy calls for the U.S.-led coalition forces to redeploy to larger bases and let Iraqis become responsible for their security in specific regions. The larger bases can act in a support or reserve role. A final stage would involve the drawdown of troops from Iraq.
Camp Abu Naji, 200 miles southeast of Baghdad, had come under almost daily attack when the Britons were in control, an indication of the hostility for foreign troops.
It was first invaded by a handful of Iraqis on Thursday, hours after 1,200 British troops pulled out to redeploy along the border with Iran to crack down on weapons smuggling.
Iraqi police dispersed looters by firing shots into the air, said Dhaffar Jabbar, spokesman for the governor of the southern Maysan province where Amarah is located. But scores of looters returned Friday when the camp was under a small contingent of Iraqi troops.
"There are only a few soldiers at Abu Naji camp. Some of the residents were carrying weapons so they (the soldiers) did not want bloodshed and with such a big number, they could not stop them," Jabbar said Friday.
On Thursday, Iraqi authorities had complained the British withdrawal had caught them unaware.
"British forces evacuated the military headquarters without coordination with the Iraqi forces," Jabbar said Thursday.
But the British military rejected the assertion, with Maj. Charlie Burbridge saying the handover was coordinated with Amarah authorities 24 hours in advance.
"It was understood that the governor was likely to use the camp as a police training camp," he said in an e-mail Thursday, adding that Iraqi forces had secured the base after the British soldiers left.
In the midst of the looting, one man who refused to give his name, said, "This is war loot, and we are allowed to take it."
Meanwhile, a prominent hardline Sunni cleric said Friday he was willing to meet with top Shiite religious leaders to end sectarian violence and help move Iraq out of its internal crisis.
"We are ready to meet anybody who is sincere, and desires good things for Iraq and for Iraqis, in particular the supreme religious leadership in Iraq, " Harith al-Dhari, leader of the Association of Muslim Scholars, said on Al-Jazeera television.