Shiite fighters in tracksuits and sneakers unloaded cars full of machine guns, mortars and land mines Monday as a five-day disarmament program kicked off in Baghdad's Sadr City district — a sign of progress in the center of Shiite resistance in Iraq.
A lasting peace in the sprawling slum would allow U.S. and Iraqi forces to focus resources on the mounting Sunni insurgency. Underscoring the threat, two American soldiers were killed in a rocket attack in southern Bagdad, and a third U.S. soldier died when a suicide driver exploded a car bomb in front of a U.S. convoy in Mosul.
Followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr promised the government last weekend they would hand over medium and heavy weapons for cash in a deal considered an important step toward ending weeks of fighting with U.S. and Iraqi forces in Sadr City. Iraqi police and National Guardsmen will then assume security responsibility for the district, which is home to more than 2 million people.
In return, the government has pledged to start releasing detained al-Sadr followers who have not committed crimes, suspend raids and rebuild the war-ravaged slum.
The arms transfer came after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, making an unannounced
Members of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army started showing up at three designated police stations early Monday morning, carting bags full of guns and explosives — even TNT paste. Many of the weapons appeared old and rusted, but government officials expressed satisfaction with the first day's haul.
"Sadr City residents were very responsive and the process went without any incidents," Interior Ministry spokesman Col. Adnan Abdul-Rahman said. "We hope this will be completed in a comprehensive manner so that reconstruction can start in the city.
Security was tight, with numerous checkpoints set up along the way and Iraqi troops deployed on the rooftops. U.S. soldiers also watched from a distance.
Abdul al-Nawaf pulled up in front of al-Habibiya station in a white sedan and started unloading machine guns, mortar shells and grenade launchers.
"We have more, but we're waiting to see whether money will be paid or not," the 26-year-old fighter said. "We also want to see if there will be a truce — and whether that truce will last."
He appeared disappointed when police handed him a receipt and told him to come back later to collect his cash.
Militia fighters started arriving in larger numbers once officials turned up with cash to pay them. Rates ranged from US$5 (euro4) for a hand grenade to US$1,000 (euro805) for a heavy-caliber machine gun.
"We are fed up with fighting," said Hassan Kadhim, 31, as he unloaded guns and mortar rounds from a pickup truck. He hoped to use the money to start a business.
U.S. and Iraqi authorities hope the weapons turnover will be the first step toward restoring peace in turbulent Sadr City — the center of major Shiite resistance.
"Until that process is completed, and until the Iraqi government itself is satisfied, it is way too early to characterize it as a success," said Lt. Col. James Hutton, spokesman for the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division.
If disarmament is successful in Sadr City, officials hope to replicate the process in other insurgent enclaves so they can curb resistance by nationwide elections in January.
Both sides, however, view one another with suspicion. Many militia fighters and even some Iraqi National Guard members covered their faces during the handover, apparently in fear of being targeted.
There have been several truces before with al-Sadr — none of which lasted more than 40 days. A deal brokered after heavy fighting in the Shiite holy city of Najaf in August allowed his militia to walk away with its weapons. Soon afterward, clashes broke out again in Sadr City.
"We made sure this time that all weapons should be surrendered," Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said on a visit to another former insurgent stronghold, Samarra. U.S. and Iraqi forces reclaimed that city by force and Allawi hinted the same would happen in Sadr City if negotiations fail.
"We are going to prevail against the forces of evil here in Iraq," he told reporters. "Whatever it takes, we'll do."
Elsewhere, two U.S. soldiers were killed and five wounded in a rocket attack Monday in southern Baghdad, the military said. No further details were disclosed. A series of heavy explosions rocked the city after nightfall.
In Mosul, 360 kilometers (225 miles) northwest of Baghdad, insurgents opened fire from a mosque after the car bomb exploded in front of the U.S. convoy, the military said. One U.S. soldier was killed and nine were wounded in the attack, the U.S. command said. City hospitals reported at least two Iraqis killed and 18 wounded.
Also Monday, U.S. warplanes pounded insurgents in Hit, part of Iraq's Sunni heartland northwest of Baghdad, during a second day of clashes there.
The latest round began when insurgents fired on Marines and Iraqi National Guard members from a mosque, the U.S. command said. Marines returned fire with small arms and machine guns until the rebels started firing mortars, when Marine air support was called in, a military statement said.
At least two Iraqis were killed and 15 wounded during the exchanges, said Dr. Fouad al-Heeti at the hospital in the town 165 kilometers (100 miles) west of Baghdad.
In Ramadi, scene of fierce fighting overnight, insurgents fired two rockets at the city hall Monday, residents said. There was no immediate word on casualties.
Clashes also broke out south of the capital, where U.S. and Iraqi forces launched an operation last week to suppress insurgents in an area notorious for ambushes and kidnappings.
Gunfire echoed through the center of Latifiyah, 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Baghdad, as U.S. and Iraqi forces raided buildings along the main street. At least three people were treated for injuries at the hospital in nearby Iskandariyah.
Also Monday, an Islamist Web site showed the beheading of two hostages — one a Turkish contractor and the other a Kurdish translator wearing a badge of the Titan security company.
A statement said the two were killed by the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, which claimed responsibility for slaughtering 12 Nepalese workers in August.
An Arabic television station also broadcast footage of three hooded gunmen threatening to behead a Turkish hostage in three days unless U.S. authorities release all Iraqi prisoners and all Turkish nationals leave Iraq.
One of the gunmen identified the kidnappers as members of Tawhid and Jihad, Iraq's most feared terrorist group. However, the segment broadcast on Al-Arabiya did not feature the group's banner, which has typically featured in the background of its video statements.
More than 150 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq, some for lucrative ransoms and others as leverage against the United States and its allies. At least 28 of them have been killed.
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