WASHINGTON — In the last few days, US forces in Iraq have suffered some of the most serious attacks since the war in Iraq started. Following the shooting down of a US Chinook helicopter by a surface-to-air missile Sunday, the question remains - why are the small arms and light weapons used to terrorize Iraq not being systematically collected and destroyed?
Each description of postwar Iraqi violence portrays lawlessness due in part to the wide availability and lack of control of millions of small arms and light weapons. News reports point to more than 50 major weapons sites where small arms are poorly secured. US forces have estimated that in these weapons depots alone, there is a total of 650,000 tons of weapons such as rifles, missiles, ammunition, and other war materiel.
Small arms are low on the list of US priorities, which are focused largely on finding weapons of mass destruction and securing heavier conventional weapons. Indeed, small-arms collection and destruction is strangely absent from battle commanders' new focus on fighting terrorist threats of random bombing and shooting.
There are specific steps the US could begin taking now to mitigate the danger. Eliminating the demand for these weapons - in the short and long term - is absolutely crucial. The US, with multilateral partners, must develop an environment where weapons are not necessary, safety and security are provided, and civilians don't live in an environment of fear. In the short term, this may mean increasing neighborhood patrols. In the long term, it will mean rebuilding the legal and judiciary branches and eliminating impunity.
But to achieve law and order, the supply of small arms must be addressed. There are three aspects to such an effort: systematically searching for small arms caches, securing them, and destroying them.
With regard to collection, voluntary amnesties offered by the US-led occupation force last summer didn't work. Iraqis were encouraged to turn in such light weapons as hand-fired missiles and rocket-propelled grenades but allowed to keep automatic rifles and handguns. So millions of small arms remain uncontrolled. And, to address the threat of thousands of unaccounted for surface-to-air missiles - like the one used to down the Chinook - the US has offered cash. But just offering $500 a piece for shoulder-fired missiles won't deter the threat. If people don't feel safe, they won't turn in weapons no matter how much cash is offered. And such cash rewards often foster a black market - which, under current conditions, is already thriving.
Instead of buy-back programs, Iraqis would benefit from community-based weapons-collection programs. Rather than turning in weapons for cash, a neighborhood could receive increased security patrols; provision of electricity; or assistance with rebuilding schools, roads, and shops, for a target number of weapons turned in. AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, and missiles have no place in Iraqi households. Even the assault rifles civilians were allowed to keep under US policy earlier this year often find their way out of homes and are used for crime and violence.
Once collected, weapons not destroyed must be suitably secured. Known arms depots that exist in and around Baghdad are poorly guarded, and have become reliable sources for those seeking weapons. The US must begin training Iraqis in proper stockpile security and management. The US already has such model programs under way in other countries.
Most weapons collected in Iraq should be destroyed. It needn't be costly. The US has experience training local populations on weapons destruction, and it has recently given technical and financial aid to destruction programs in 10 countries at a cost of $5.25 million, destroying 300,000 weapons and 7.5 million rounds of ammunition.
President Bush has repeatedly solidified his commitment to remain in Iraq. Given that, US forces must begin the task of eliminating the threat of small arms. In Afghanistan, more than two years after the war there ended, Afghani soldiers and warlords have just begun official disarmament. These soldiers are receiving $200, a change of clothes, a box of food, vocational training, and employment counseling. It's too early to judge the program's success, but it has taken two years to begin. Iraq can't wait that long. Disarmament must begin now or there'll be countless more US soldiers and Iraqi civilians victimized by the scourge of small arms.
• Rachel Stohl is a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information.