Small Weapons Prove the Real Threat in Iraq

3:20 PM, Sep 30, 2003   |    comments
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    U.S. forces haven't found Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, but they're literally stumbling over a much more immediate threat: weapons of individual destruction.

    These are the mines, booby traps, rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers and Soviet-made automatic rifles that are killing and wounding American soldiers almost daily.

    Pentagon reports on the 86 U.S. battle fatalities since May 1, when President Bush declared an end to major combat, show almost all involved light arms or remote-controlled IEDs — "improvised explosive devices," made of patched-together hand grenades or plastic explosives — that regularly destroy Humvees and kill or maim their occupants.

    In strategic sections of Iraq, just about every school, hospital or Baath Party building that U.S. forces come across is stacked high with ammunition, according to Gen. John Abizaid, overall commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. The number of sites is a logistical nightmare for the coalition, which can't remove the arms fast enough and lacks manpower to guard all the caches.

    Abizaid's military command estimates it will take five years to destroy all the explosives already confiscated. Meanwhile, unguarded sites become ready-made supply houses for guerrilla fighters.

    "There is more ammunition in Iraq than any place I've ever been in my life, and it is all not securable," Abizaid told senators in a Sept. 24 hearing. "I wish I could tell you that we had it all under control, but we don't."

    After focusing intensely on Iraq's alleged chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs, the Pentagon is only now coming to grips with the scale of the small arms problem in Iraq. Guerrilla fighters' easy access to arms and explosives poses the most immediate threat to coalition troops and to the objective of establishing stability in Iraq.

    The more U.S. soldiers come under attack, the jumpier they become, leading to recent incidents in which troops have shot at Iraqi police, journalists, an Italian diplomat and even a wedding party. Such incidents, in turn, fuel resentment of the coalition occupying forces, resentment that can translate into still more attacks. Mondays and Thursdays are particularly nerve-racking: Those are traditional days for weddings, which are often accompanied by celebratory gunfire that can be mistaken for a hostile attack.

    Guerrilla fighters, usually Iraqis but sometimes foreigners, have dropped hand grenades from overpasses on U.S. convoys. They have ambushed soldiers on foot patrol. And they have used remote-control devices such as cell phones to set off large bombs as U.S. formations pass by.

    On Sept. 10, in one of many such attacks, Army Staff Sgt. Joseph Robsky was called to defuse an improvised explosive device. After a first attempt failed, Robsky returned to the site in Baghdad and the IED detonated, killing him. Presumably, it had been set off by a fighter waiting until troops neared the device.

    |subhed| GIs warned to avoid road debris |/subhed|

    "The number of command-detonated IEDs and mortar rounds continues to increase," stated an internal coalition threat warning issued in September made available to USA TODAY by a U.S. intelligence official. "IEDs appear to be the weapons of choice, (especially the) command-detonated type." The report warned soldiers to "give wide clearance to any items that have been left on the roads," including boxes, bags, debris, soda cans, dead animals, containers of military meals-ready-to-eat and broken-down vehicles that might conceal bombs.

    For the kind of lethal but small-scale attacks that guerrilla forces are mounting, the supply of lightweight arms, explosives and ammunition appears inexhaustible.

    In just four months, coalition forces uncovered 102 large caches of small arms throughout Iraq and seized hundreds more smaller caches. To qualify as "large," a weapons cache must require at least 10 tractor-trailer loads to remove it.

    In just the sector of central Iraq patrolled by the Army's 4th Infantry Division, more than 3,000 arms caches that must be destroyed, moved or guarded have been found, Abizaid said. And there is much more yet to be found, he said.

    The U.S. military command in Iraq estimates that the Iraqi armed forces had conventional ammunition stocks one-third the size of the U.S. military's supply. Despite the seizures, the forces opposing U.S. and allied troops seem nowhere near the end of their ammunition supply. Arms experts estimate there are enough guns to arm each of Iraq's 25 million people.

    An attempt by coalition forces to reduce the number of weapons in the hands of average Iraqis failed in June when an amnesty program designed to encourage turning in of heavier handheld weapons netted only a few hundred.

    Despite crackdowns, confiscations and raids, the black-market trade in small arms is flourishing: Iraqis can buy an AK-47 for as little as $10, along with all the ammunition they can carry. Of the several hundred arms caches uncovered so far, 50 remain unguarded, monitored only with remote cameras. But the coalition maintains that the caches are in remote areas, far from population centers.

    "The ready access of munitions and other weapons from these sites threatens efforts to bring stability to Iraq and our reconstruction efforts in that country," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., wrote in a Sept. 5 letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

    Of the 86 U.S. combat deaths in Iraq for which detailed information is available, 79 involved attacks with small arms, improvised explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades. Three other U.S. soldiers were killed by mines; two in mortar attacks; and two in vehicle collisions caused when Iraqi fighters ran U.S. military vehicles off the road, according to Pentagon data.

    |subhed| 'Never give up your weapons' |/subhed|

    The importance of small arms to Iraqi guerrilla fighters was underscored earlier this month in a broadcast statement by Ayman al-Zawahiri, second-in-command of the terrorist group al-Qaeda. "Iraqis, never ever give up your weapons."

    A defense intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says of the lack of prewar intelligence on Iraq's light weapons, "We're just not resourced for small arms. They tend to fall through the cracks." When the Pentagon is not assessing Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, it is focusing on heavy military equipment such as missiles, radar and armored vehicles, the official says.

    The problem, says Assistant Secretary of State Lincoln Bloomfield Jr., is not a lack of focus on small arms but the difficulty of the task. Amnesty programs don't work when average Iraqis believe they need firearms for their own security.

    Buyback programs end up merely subsidizing the arms trade, as someone might turn in one of the countless Soviet-made AK-47s in Iraq for $300 and go out and buy one for anywhere from $10 to $50. In a force already stretched thin securing Iraq and trying to stay on the offensive to catch guerrillas and regime leaders, it is difficult to find enough soldiers to guard all of the thousands of weapons caches.

    "We do not have the ability to secure all the places in Iraq that need to be secure, so we're trying to prioritize," Bloomfield says. "We're focused on the populated areas."

    The coalition estimates Saddam Hussein amassed 600,000 tons of ammunition, or about a third of the entire U.S. military stockpile. The total moved to secure locations inside Iraq by coalition forces so far amounts to 70,000 to 80,000 tons.

    Securing all that weaponry costs money. The Army Corps of Engineers is paying four contractors $287 million to gather, sort and destroy confiscated weapons at six collection sites in Iraq whose locations are being kept secret to avoid attracting attacks. Some seized weapons may be issued to reorganized Iraqi police and military forces. At the State Department, this year's $12.6 million budget for dealing with mines and unexploded ordnance in Iraq is expected to nearly quintuple to $60 million next year.

    Iraq imported huge quantities of conventional arms in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war, and most of the arms that U.S. forces are finding are 10 to 15 years old. Though the arms embargo imposed after the 1991 Persian Gulf War prevented Iraq from modernizing its air forces or armored divisions, Saddam was able to import lighter, more easily concealed weapons throughout the 1990s, Bloomfield says. A U.S. intelligence official says smugglers move light-weapons shipments into Iraq regularly through Syria, Turkey and Jordan.

    Precisely why Saddam's regime bought much more arms and ammunition than it needed is a mystery that Pentagon and State Department officials are investigating. Richard Kidd, a senior analyst at the State Department's Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, says Saddam may have acted in the mistaken belief that more arms and ammunition made him more secure. His subordinates, meanwhile, may have been profiting from kickbacks from arms purchases.

    Several factors have helped put some of these arms into the hands of Iraqi guerrillas:

  • Before the war, Iraqi authorities distributed small arms widely to militia groups and to some of the more than 100,000 prison inmates that Rumsfeld said the Iraqi leader released earlier this year.

  • Gun ownership was common among Iraqi civilians.

  • Large minefields and areas of unexploded ordnance from previous wars provide a readily accessible source of high-explosives to bombmakers.

  • Because the Iraqi army melted away instead of surrendering to coalition forces, there was no opportunity to collect their weapons.
  •     "Iraqi soldiers still possess their military weapons because there's been no systematic, widespread demobilization. Nobody was asked to drop off their hand grenades," said Rachel Stohl, an expert in global small-arms trade with the Center for Defense Information, a think tank based in Washington. "It's really amazing that this hasn't received more systematic attention from this administration."

        U.S. commanders disagree on the level of coordination and sophistication in the attacks directed at coalition forces. After three U.S. soldiers were killed in an ambush in Tikrit on Sept. 18, Army Col. James Hickey, leading a raiding party that captured 40 Iraqi fighters, told reporters that they were facing "a handful of rear guards attempting to maintain a degree of political relevance here. They will not succeed."

        But the coalition threat warning, taking a wider view of the fighting, said that "these subversive groups continue to emerge throughout the AO (area of operations), and are adapting and perfecting their attack tactics, techniques and procedures."

        Arms caches have not only been a source of weaponry for Iraqi guerrillas but also a locus of fighting. At least five U.S. fatalities since May 1 have come in firefights that erupted during coalition raids of Iraqi arms caches.

       

        By John Diamond, USA TODAY

        (Copyright 2003 by USA Today. All Rights Reserved.)

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