Iraq awash in military weapons

An attack on a US convoy Sunday highlights concern over Iraq's 50 unsecured arms depots.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A roadside attack on US military convoy Sunday in Fallujah, Iraq left an American armored car and munitions truck burning wrecks. No one was reported killed, but some Iraqis nearby were cheering.

The Fallujah attack typifies one of an emerging series of threats apparent since September due to the wide availability of guns and military ordnance here. The result has been a steady supply of explosives to use against coalition soldiers, more Iraqi vigilante justice, and a rise in local militia groups.

One coalition official says that up to 50 major weapons sites across Iraq with bombs, ammunition, and rifles in them are improperly secured and have probably served as a source for the home-made bombs - improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in military parlance - that have become the single biggest security threat to the coalition.

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New militias are also being spawned across the country and are increasingly coming into conflict either with the coalition or with other Iraqis.

The most visible militias in recent weeks have been ones aligned to extremist Shiite clerics. Shiite Muslims make up about 60 percent of Iraq's people, and were literally second-class citizens in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. At least seven coalition soldiers - 5 of them Americans - have been killed in clashes with these militias this month.

The availability of weapons to ordinary Iraqis, not just militias, is also a concern. In May, Paul Bremer, the top coalition official here, decided to allow Iraqis to keep AK-47s, with the stipulation that they confine them to their home. But that provision has proven almost impossible to enforce, and gun-toting toughs are now a regular feature on the streets of most of Iraq's cities.

"In my opinion, we'd be a lot better off if we didn't let people keep AK-47s in their homes,'' says Gen. Kadhem Abdul Khalik, the chief of police for Al-Risafa district, which encompasses about half of Baghdad. "Under the old regime, there were a lot fewer guns in private hands, and that made our job easier and safer."

Now, automatic weapons are heard throughout the evening in Baghdad. Usually there aren't casualties - it's just macho posturing, or someone letting off a few rounds to play a joke on a friend - but the gunplay ups the ante in an already tense environment.

The rationale behind the coalition's gun policy was helping citizens stand up to the crime wave that swept Baghdad and other cities in the chaos that followed the collapse of Hussein's regime, with well-armed gangs kidnapping wealthy citizens, stealing antiquities, and conducting car-jackings. With so many regime arsenals unguarded, it was easy for criminals to arm, and it was felt that tougher restrictions would be unfair to the law-abiding majority.

The coalition believes its policy on guns remains the right one. "There are pretty strict weapons controls... and I think they strike the right balance,'' says coalition spokesman Charles Heatley. For instance, "to take the gun out of your house you need a weapons permit."

There are private militias that have not caused much trouble for the coalition, including the Badr Brigade. This militia, loyal to the cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and his Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, continues to train and consolidate.

Many of the members of the US- appointed Governing Council roll through Baghdad with carloads of gun-toting loyalists, and AK-47 assault rifles remain freely available to anyone with $100 to $200.

"I'd certainly feel a lot more comfortable if we could find a way to start getting these guns off the streets,'' said a US military policemen on patrol in Baghdad. "It's real easy for someone to take a gun out of their house and start shooting."

Compounding the problem has been the difficulty coalition forces have had guarding weapons caches of the old Iraqi army. Rocket-propelled grenades, heavy bombs, and guns are still there for the taking at weapons sites across the country.

On Saturday night, two American soldiers were killed in rocket-propelled grenade attack in the northern city of Kirkuk. In Sunday morning's attack in Fallujah, 35 miles west of Baghdad, initial reports indicated that a bomb on the side of the road detonated as the US convoy rumbled past. Though there's no word on how the bomb was made yet, almost all similar bombs have been made with ammunition and ordnance from Hussein's arsenal that have been "daisy-chained" together.

Gen. Robert Davis of the Army Corps of Engineers, who's in charge of weapons disposal in Iraq, said in a weekend press briefing here, he didn't know how many sites are insufficiently guarded. He said military units are finding new weapons sites almost every day.

The emergence of Shiite militias is a new and disturbing wrinkle for the coalition. Under Hussein, his fellow Sunnis were privileged in everything from government jobs to education, and the regime loyalists thought to be behind Sunday's attack and dozens of others like it are almost exclusively Sunni.

But on Oct. 9, when two US soldiers and two Iraqis were killed in the poor Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City when troops engaged about 500 members of the Mehdi Army, a militia formed recently by the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, everything changed. The presumption that the Shiites would largely stay on the sidelines during Iraq's transition, happy to see the coalition bring Hussein loyalists under control, went out the window.

Last Thursday, three US soldiers and two Iraqi policemen died in a clash in the Shiite shrine city of Karbala with armed supporters of Mahmoud al-Hassani, a cleric who is a close friend of Mr. Sadr and a former student of his deceased father, according to other clerics in town. As many as eight militiamen were killed in that incident.

Earlier last week Mr. Hassani's men had clashed with guardians of the shrines of Abbas and Hussein, leaving at least 5 dead.

These radical groups have also spurred less radical Shiite groups to arm themselves for their protection. After the April murder of a cleric at the shrine of Ali in Najaf, Shiite Islam's holiest site, guardians close to the moderate cleric Ali Hussein al-Sistani took up arms. Now AK-47s are commonly seen in and around the shrine.

In Karbala, Salam Aubayes, a guardian of the shrine of Hussein, says he's never carried a gun but that he's rethinking the situation in light of the activities of Hassani. "This used to be a peaceful place, not a political place,'' he says. "I hope the American's can disarm these guys, but I'm worried."

Though coalition officials are convinced that Sadr and Hassani are losing political support, most Shiite are repulsed by the violent incidents they've been associated with. But US officials have been reluctant to move against them for fear of sparking wider clashes with their well-armed supporters.

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