Iraq's Small Arms Pose Big Problem

An Iraqi boy looks at a revolver in a gun market in Baghdad, May 11, 2003. In a city bursting with AK-47s, submachine guns and Browning 9mms, U.S. forces are struggling to restore security, one gun at a time. Terrified residents say the weapons are their only protection against robbers, looters and arsonists who have run wild since Saddam Hussein was overthrown. AP

Insurgents fired at least 10 mortar rounds at a U.S. base on the outskirts of Baghdad International Airport on Wednesday, wounding 11 soldiers, two of them seriously, and starting a fire that burned for well over an hour.

That attack, along with a car bomb that exploded outside a police headquarters in Samawah, 150 miles south of the capital, Baghdad, were yet more evidence that insurgents have no plans of letting up their attacks even after the U.S. coalition authorities handed over sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government on Monday.

But a report finds that small arms, not military ordnance like mortars, may be a major threat to stability in newly sovereign Iraq.

According to a study published Wednesday, the huge numbers of small arms left behind by Iraq's armed forces after the fall of Saddam Hussein could cause instability in the Middle East for years to come.

"Millions of firearms suddenly flooded a chaotic social landscape," the 335-page Small Arms Survey said. The number of murders using firearms in Baghdad rose dramatically and "the violence became a major barrier to the restoration of legitimate authority."

The Iraqi people currently control an estimated 7-8 million firearms, although the actual number could be much higher, the study said. This makes Iraq "highly but not exceptionally well armed," and it still has fewer firearms per person than countries such as Finland.

"The concern here … is we do not know what proportion of these weapons are military style," Keith Krause, the program director for the survey, told reporters. "Iraq now poses a regional proliferation risk."

In other developments:

  • The United States turned Saddam Hussein and 11 of his deputies over to Iraqi legal custody on Wednesday, an official said, the first step toward trying the former dictator on charges expected to include the massacre of Kurds in 1988 and the invasion of Kuwait two years later.

  • The United States spent far more of Iraq's money than its own in the first year of reconstruction, according to a new congressional report.

  • The incoming Iraqi ambassador to the United States laid out a welcome mat to members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party even though "they may not be perfect democrats."

  • An inquiry into the quality of Britain's prewar intelligence on Iraqi weapons will publish its report on July 14, the government announced Wednesday. The Times of London said the findings could pose more trouble for Prime Minister Tony Blair.

  • U.S. Army has reopened investigations into two prisoner deaths in Iraq that had previously been attributed to natural causes, an official with the service said. New information led investigators to question the causes of the deaths, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

  • For the first time in more than a decade, the Army is forcing thousands of former soldiers back into uniform, a reflection of the strain on the service of long campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Army officials said Tuesday that about 5,600 former soldiers — mostly people who recently left the service and have up-to-date skills in military policing, engineering, logistics, medicine or transportation — will be assigned to National Guard and Reserve units starting in July.

  • The U.S. military has changed the status of a Marine in Iraq from "missing" to "captured." In a videotape shown on Arab TV Sunday, militants threaten to behead Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun, a Marine of Lebanese descent. The New York Times quotes a Marine source who says Hassoun had deserted and was trying to make his way back to Lebanon, after seeing a comrade killed by a mortar.

    Despite the end of the occupation, about 160,000 foreign troops — most of them Americans — remain in Iraq to provide security and train Iraq's new security services. American officials have warned that the transfer of sovereignty would not stop assaults.

    Guerrillas struck the logistics base on the edge of Baghdad's airport at about 8:15 a.m., said Lt. Col. Richard Rael, their commander. The base is operated by the New Mexico Army National Guard's 515 Corps Support Battalion.

    "We're OK," Rael said. "We'll get back to business as usual."

    A pall of black smoke hung over the airport for an hour after one of the 82 mm mortar rounds struck a petroleum products yard. There were no injuries from the fire.

    The base has been subject to almost daily mortar attacks, but this was the first time the attacks caused significant casualties and damage.

    Two people were wounded in the car bombing in Samawah, which set two other vehicles ablaze, a hospital official said.

    Elsewhere, police in the southern city of Basra on Wednesday defused a car bomb targeting a parade of 1,000 officers from various branches of the security services, said Iraqi Police Intelligence Capt. Jassim Mohammed.

    He said a car laden with explosives and ordinance was placed about 500 yards away from the parade route.

    As of April, about $58 billion in grants, loans, Iraqi assets and revenues has been made available or pledged to reconstruction and relief efforts in post-Saddam Iraq, the General Accounting Office said in a report made public Tuesday.

    That includes $24 billion in U.S. funds, $13.6 billion in international pledges and $21 billion largely from sales of Iraqi oil and assets of the former regime that had been frozen or seized by various nations.

    Of the $24 billion in American funds, the occupation authority signed contracts and obligated $8.2 billion and actually handed out $3 billion, the GAO report said.

    Of the $21 billion in Iraqi money, authorities made commitments for $13 billion and actually spent $8.3 billion, the GAO said. It said complete and reliable information on disbursements of funds from international pledges was not available when it did the report this spring.

    The spending has yet to generate the projected reconstruction work. The New York Times reports only 140 of 2,300 proposed construction projects have started and fewer than 20,000 Iraqis have taken up jobs in reconstruction, not the 50,000 that U.S. officials promised.
    • Joel Roberts

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