Fear of crime holds up US effort to disarm Iraq
BAGHDAD — It was about noon when a man slid into the back seat of Mohammed Abdul Razak's taxi and held a knife to his throat, while an accomplice jumped up front and put a gun to Mr. Razak's head.
"They said, 'Get out,'"the victim recalls. "I was scared for my life, so I did."
Now Razak's Nissan is gone, along with his livelihood and peace of mind. And for this, he blames the US military. If the soldiers who searched his car at a checkpoint Thursday had not confiscated the handgun he kept in the glove compartment, he could have defended himself when the carjackers attacked two days later, Razak says.
The episode illustrates the difficulty the US is encountering as it tries to reduce the number of weapons in Iraqi hands as part of efforts to restore stability here.
As Razak tells his story, the Iraqis manning the police station in the al-Saleikh neighborhood nod sympathetically then shake their heads. Sunday, they were supposed to begin collecting Iraqis' weapons, as part of a nationwide amnesty program launched by US and British forces.
According to the coalition forces' new rules, effective June 1, Iraqis must turn in guns, rifles, and heavier weaponry by June 14 - or face detention and criminal charges.
But at thinly staffed police stations that are supposed to serve as collection points, Iraqis say the plan looks dubious: Many people still say they feel a total lack of security in the country, and there is little incentive to hand in the family firearms, considered important assets in a time of disarray.
"How will they give up their weapons if they don't feel secure?" asks Maj. Kadh Hassan Ashumari, a former Iraqi Army officer who runs the police station in al-Saleikh, in cooperation with coalition forces.
So far, he says, only one elderly man has come to turn in his worn-out Kalashnikov. A US military official, interviewed Sunday, confirmed that the turnout has been scant.
"How do you provide security for the neighborhood without weapons? When people feel 100 percent safe, and law and order is back again, then they will give up their guns," Major Ashumari says.
The trouble in implementing the weapons policy over the next two weeks here, in what may be one of the most widely armed cities on earth, may boil down to something of a chicken-and-egg argument. US military officials say that security will come when the number of weapons in Iraqi hands decreases. But many Iraqis say that only when they feel safer can they consider volunteering to turn in their weapons.
Instead of bring filled with people coming to give up their guns, police stations are busy with Iraqis complaining about being victims of crime - as well as people who say they want their confiscated weapons back. Although it seems unlikely that Razak could have defended himself against two armed men, he insists that being armed would have helped: In recent weeks, he had used the gun to scare off thieves who at times seem to have free reign in Baghdad.
It is possible that Razak was targeted by thieves who watched him lose his weapon to a US soldier. But US military officials maintain that the only way to fight the crime spree here is to take weapons out of circulation.
"You need to have a better form of protection than vigilantism and your own gun," says Capt. Dave Connolly, a public affairs officer with the US Army. "It's not a program to disarm all Iraqis. It's a program to bring security and reduce the number of weapons."
The very notion of foreign, Western soldiers taking away weapons is difficult for many Iraqis to accept. In many corners of the Arab world, there is a certain pride in bearing weapons, even when they're rarely used. A curved knife, called a jambiyah, is part of the national dress in Yemen and serves a mark of manhood; a sword adorns the flag of Saudi Arabia.
In Iraq, guns were widely held, but out of fear of the regime of Saddam Hussein, average civilians seldom used them. In the 10 years since he'd had his Star 9 gun, says Razak, he'd never had cause to so much as brandish it.
Razak's gun was confiscated because - unbeknownst to him - he was violating an order issued last week by L. Paul Bremer, the US- appointed head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. The order states that Iraqis can keep small arms in their homes, but they "may not be taken out in public." Only people authorized by the coalition forces to carry arms in public may do so. Only coalition forces, police security, and "other forces in uniform under the supervision of the coalition" are permitted to possess automatic and heavy weapons.
The last line refers to the exception the US has made for the Kurdish pesh merga, militia groups who were allied with coalition forces in northern Iraq during the war. Although senior US military officials say the pesh merga are a separate, organized force who must be recognized for their contributions to the war effort against the Iraqi regime, the policy has raised ire among Arabs in other parts of the country.
In the drive to weed out some of Iraq's weapons, the US military says it has succeeded in closing down Baghdad's open-air arms markets.
But Qaid Al-Abaidy, an Iraqi officer serving in the same station as Ashumari, says it is just a mirage. "These places are all over Baghdad. If the Americans are passing by," he says, dealers get the get the word that they are coming up the street, "and they just hide them for a while.
"They cannot close all the markets for weapons," he adds. "It's right that they're out there trying to round them up, but it just doesn't end," he says. "The best thing is to offer money for the weapons, because people need money."
The US military, says Captain Connelly, has no such plans.
There are signs, however, that the coalition crackdown on weapons is having an effect- though perhaps not exactly the desired one.
The price of guns is dropping, people here say, in part because many people are selling their weapons on the black market. Struggling Iraqis who haven't received salaries since before the war may be selling some of their guns to turn extra weapons into cash - and in anticipation of possibly having their guns taken away by US forces in the coming weeks.
But many Iraqis will hold onto their weapons as long as possible. For many, the US military patrolling the streets is no substitute for law and order.
Soldiers posted outside the large Abu Khanifa Mosque here say that even if they saw a carjacking like Razak's, they wouldn't have the power to stop it. Their orders, says Sgt. Michael Overholt, of the 3rd Infantry Division, do not including apprehending suspected criminals.
"We can report an incident," he says, "but that's about it."