Iraq's other disarmament challenge: small arms

Unlike chemical weapons, rifles are easy for US troops to find. But some caches are slipping into anti-US hands.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Schools and hospitals. Hospitals and schools.

In neighborhoods and villages across Iraq, the pattern is always the same. Iraqi forces assumed American troops would not deliberately destroy civilian structures. So that's where they put their ammunition.

The presence of such large stocks of guns, bullets, and bombs further complicates US efforts to restore Iraq to a level of prewar normality. It requires an enormous effort to clean up the dangerous stockpiles. In addition, it suggests that those with an anti-American agenda in Iraq are probably well armed. And that could mean trouble for US troops in the weeks and months ahead.

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"Every school, every hospital we go in we find weapons," says Col. Steven Boltz of the US Army's V Corps. There are over 2,000 such sites across the country, officials say.

In Baghdad alone, the 3rd Infantry Division has removed 2.6 million small-arms rounds, nearly 50,000 heavy machine-gun rounds, 13,700 grenades, 50,000 RPG rounds, 7,700 artillery rounds, and nearly 19,000 mines.

In addition, they have found more than 20,000 rifles, 4,200 pistols, 995 RPG launchers, 286 mortar tubes, 26 tanks, and one missile launcher.

Significant amounts of ammunition and weapons were hidden in arms caches in every section of the city, from outlying suburbs to the city center near the banks of the Tigris.

"I was in Bosnia, so I am not surprised by the volume," says Capt. Elisabeth Walker, assistant operations officer for the 3rd Infantry. "But I think probably Iraq is worse. It is an astronomical amount of stuff, and it's in houses and neighborhoods."

Colonel Boltz agrees. "We didn't realize the extent and amount of these weapons," he says. "Every town with a population over 30,000 had ammunition stored in it."

One of the most recent finds came in a neighborhood in western Baghdad. There are 11 classrooms at the Al-Ibtahal School, but since February no education has taken place in any of them. All were used to store ammunition. Desks and chairs were stacked outside in the central courtyard.

US soldiers have been working for a week to clear the site, and two of the 15-by-20 foot classrooms are still filled with waist-high piles of antiaircraft rounds.

First Sgt. Ronald Cole of Glennville, Ga., says the Army occasionally hires local workers for $2 a day to help remove the munitions. "We've hauled off truckloads," he says. "It will take about a week more to clean out."

Initially, when US forces encountered weapons caches, they destroyed what they discovered. Now, ordnance experts are only destroying munitions deemed dangerously unstable. The rest are being stockpiled for eventual use by the new Iraqi armed forces.

Sometimes the Iraqis don't even bother trying to conceal the cache. They dumped a substantial pile of artillery and mortar rounds in an open yard only a few feet behind the school and just a short distance from a densely populated neighborhood.

THE danger of locating such caches in residential areas was dramatically underscored last weekend, when someone fired four flares into a depot east of Baghdad where US forces had consolidated collected weapons.

The flares ignited the stockpile, including at least one Frog-7 missile that launched and detonated in a neighborhood nearby. US officials estimated at least 6 civilians were killed and four injured. Media reports cited higher casualty figures.

The explosions triggered anti-American demonstrations. And US officials believe the flares were fired in an attempt to turn the local population against American troops by causing massive civilian casualties. "For us it is a terrorist act, it is a crime," says Boltz of the flare attack and resulting casualties.

In answer to the protests, US officials say the danger to local residents wasn't created by US forces. "I'm sure the Iraqi people understand that the Baath Party and Saddam Hussein filled the schools, mosques, and hospitals with weapons," says Lt. Col. Joseph Richard, a V Corps spokesman. "It was a blatant disregard for the safety of their own citizens."

US troops are working as fast as possible to move the weapons to more secure locations. "It is just a massive job," Colonel Richard says. But increasingly, the Americans are receiving help from residents who tell them where the weapons are hidden.

Explosions aren't the only danger related to the weapons caches. Many of the caches, including the one in west Baghdad, were looted prior to their discovery by US forces. That means that anti-American forces - and a wide spectrum of others of various political persuasions - had ample opportunity to stock up before hiding in residential areas.

"I call it a Kmart blowout special for anyone who wants a weapon," says Boltz.

The fact that the Iraqi population is armed to the teeth means US forces must always be ready for sniper or bomb attacks, even when they enter a neighborhood for purely humanitarian reasons.

A gunman recently attacked a Humvee driven by a US Army civil-affairs unit working to improve Iraqi health services. He opened fire with an AK-47, spraying the vehicle as it drove on a downtown Baghdad street. Four soldiers were injured. Army officials say the gunman was killed.

After the attack, commanders ordered that any such civil-affairs missions must be accompanied by at least two armored military police Humvees, each with .50-caliber heavy machine guns mounted on the roof. But while the presence of such firepower might deter gunmen, some Army civil-affairs officers are concerned that it might also undercut their efforts to present a friendly face to supportive Iraqi civilians.

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