In gun seizures, some surprise finds
US soldiers in Iraq are finding decades-old weapons - part of a black market in guns that is making it difficult to restore order in Baghdad.
BAGHDAD — They are enough weapons to supply four platoons of fedayeen fighters. Thirty-four AK-47 assault rifles, seven rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and four heavy machine guns - all lined up along the curb.
When the signal is given, a driver eases his 33-ton Bradley fighting vehicle forward, quickly and efficiently crushing parts of the machine guns and RPG launchers, and bending the assault rifles into a banana shape.
Master Sgt. Paul Cortellesso of the US Army's 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR) picks up a contorted AK-47. "This one can shoot around corners now," he says.
The destroyed guns are only a small portion of the nearly 300 weapons - some worthy of a museum collection - which have been confiscated in east Baghdad by the 2nd ACR's 2nd Squadron. Patrols are instructed to seize any weapon carried openly or any weapons being sold on what quickly became a flourishing arms black market after the fall of Baghdad.
The danger of the proliferation of weapons in Iraqi society was dramatically underscored Wednesday when a US soldier with the 2nd ACR was shot in the hand while guarding a former Republican Guard office complex.
Three assailants fired 15 rounds from AK-47 assault rifles in the direction of US forces. They also threw a grenade that failed to explode. The Americans returned fire, but the attackers fled, military officials say.
A short time later, the soldiers came under fire from three men on a motorcycle. It is unclear whether they were the original shooters. All three were shot and killed.
Military officials say they are not sure whether the shooters were pro-Saddam Hussein fedayeen fighters or merely a criminal gang seeking to protect its turf. But analysts say the incident points up the destabilizing influence of the flood of weapons spread across Iraq following the recent combat operations. "Can you stuff that genie back in the bottle? I doubt it," says Maj. Marshall Dougherty, operations officer of the 2nd Squadron.
When the US Army began patrols a month ago in the east Baghdad neighborhood of Thawra, dealers bought and sold weapons openly in the central market. Sometimes the dealers posted lookouts at key intersections to signal the approach of an American patrol.
Army commanders then changed tactics. They posted their own lookout on a rooftop across from favored locations of arms sellers. Once the Army scout gave the word, Humvees raced to the scene confiscating weapons and detaining dealers. "They have moved off the streets now," says Capt. Scott Masson. One indication of US success is that the price of an AK-47 in Baghdad has increased from $8 a few weeks ago to more than $80 now, analysts say.
Masson says he is amazed at the variety of guns being seized. "I expected the AKs [the weapon of choice of the Iraqi military], but there are some pieces out there that definitely belong in a museum."
That's where Sergeant Cortellesso comes in. A weapons historian and collector in his spare time, the sergeant knows pretty much anything that can be known about handguns, rifles, and other small arms.
It is Cortellesso's job to catalog seized weapons and eventually destroy them. His makeshift arms locker has become a weapons museum, with some dating back to the Ottoman Empire.
He has several PSS-H41 Russian submachine guns - a World War II-era weapon that was also used in Korea and Vietnam. But why would the Iraqis still have such guns? "They never break," Cortellesso says. "If a weapon never breaks in this country, they will use it forever."
Indeed, US troops have confiscated several 1915 Lee Enfields, the standard issue infantry rifle in World War I.
"If only this weapon could talk," Cortellesso says, lifting the bolt-action rifle out of a pile of weapons. "Maybe it would say it came here with General Townsend [of the British Army], and after he surrendered at Kut, perhaps the Turks got it and gave it to the Iraqis."
He adds, "Maybe it was at Gallipoli, and the Turks captured it in 1915."
The Lee Enfield isn't the oldest rifle seized. Soldiers recovered a German Mauser infantry rifle made in 1871.
Cortellesso says the most interesting rifle seized so far is an Iraqi one called the "Tabuk." It is a knockoff of the much-feared Russian SVD sniper rifle. "It is basically a bargain-basement SVD," he says.
One weapon that attracted the attention of Special Forces soldiers passing through the area was a 9-mm pistol that is virtually identical to a German Sig-Sauer P-226.
Although the gun has a serial number, it carries no other markings. "The Germans are sticklers for markings. It is like building a 2002 Chevy pickup and leaving all the Chevrolet emblems off and saying this isn't a Chevy," Cortellesso says.
He says the pistol is apparently a "sanitized" weapon that could be used in an assassination. The lack of markings would make it difficult to trace back to an original purchaser, he says.
"Evidently the German manufacturer did not want to get caught," Cortellesso says. "They could always say that's not ours, even though it is obvious that it is - right down to the plum-colored barrel."