U.S. to give captured weapons to Iraqi allies

Army halts demolitions to arm resistance groups

War in Iraq

April 07, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KUFAH, Iraq - The U.S. Army has blown to bits more than a ton of bullets, grenades, mortars and other arms stashed mostly in schools by Iraqi paramilitary fighters loyal to President Saddam Hussein.

But the fireworks displays are largely over.

As of yesterday, the 101st Airborne Division is donating most newly seized arms to Iraqis working with U.S. Special Forces to suppress pro-Hussein fedayeen. The first stock of arms is expected to be given to about 60 Iraqi resistance fighters here in the Najaf area, about 90 miles south of Baghdad.

The decision reflects a belief that it makes more sense to give the arms to the pro-U.S. militia than to destroy the weapons to make sure they never again fall into the hands of the fedayeen, who are now in hiding.

The resistance fighters "have to get weapons from somewhere, and I'm not going to give them mine," said Lt. Col. Ed Palekas, who commands the division's 3rd Battalion of the 327th Infantry.

Palekas' troops will likely leave Kufah in a few days, and it is not clear who will be in charge then.

Under the new policy, the pro-U.S. Iraqi fighters are to receive bullets, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and rifles. Only mines and field artillery rounds will continue to be destroyed.

U.S. forces in Afghanistan pursued a similar strategy but recently stopped giving weapons to regional commanders out of fear that they were becoming too much of a challenge to the central government in Kabul.

In Iraq, the new approach means that far fewer thunderous blasts will be orchestrated along the Euphrates River by the 326th Engineer Battalion, which had been pushing hard to obliterate all manner of weaponry. The demolition work, conducted at a former riverfront fedayeen training complex, had been a point of pride for the engineers.

"This stuff can't be used by anyone either against us or civilians," Sgt. 1st Class Jim Williams said earlier yesterday.

The quantity of munitions, seized by infantry soldiers patrolling Kufah and Najaf since Thursday, offered a sobering reminder of how much killing potential the fedayeen wielded before they went to ground as U.S. forces approached.

In almost every school they have entered, U.S. soldiers have found an arms cache. Rocket-propelled grenades were found stacked in the schoolroom where Palekas set up temporary headquarters Saturday.

The discovery of such sizable hauls suggests that the fedayeen ran as U.S. troops grew near and did not have time to take the bulk of their arsenal.

Some weapons were blown up where soldiers found them, but much of the materiel was trucked to the river complex.

On Friday, the first day of large-scale demolition, engineers blew up 1,458 82 mm mortar rounds, 40,000 rounds of 7.62 mm ammunition fired by AK-47 assault rifles, 20,000 50-caliber bullets, 190 rocket-propelled grenades and 50 hand grenades.

They also destroyed four 82 mm mortar tubes, two 60 mm mortar tubes, four AK-47s, 2 SKS rifles, four anti-aircraft guns and 38 TM-62 anti-tank mines that left 20-foot craters.

The next day, engineers destroyed 440 122 mm artillery rounds, 400 mortar rounds and 30,000 50-caliber bullets. A night blast sent red and green flares shooting skyward over the river in three explosions timed 30 seconds apart to minimize damage to surrounding buildings.

Such "collateral damage" has been a problem. The force of one blast destroyed a building on the campus of a nearby medical college, though school officials reportedly told Williams they were not angry, given the larger aim.

Less understanding were several men who had windows blown out in their homes just down the road. One man rowed a boat from the far shore of the Euphrates, brandishing shrapnel and cursing the Army.

After dusk yesterday, all was quiet on the river. A sliver of moonlight illuminated the gentle ripples. The road was mostly empty.

But there was more demolition to be done; Bravo Company had found five VS1.6 Italian mines. They were tan in color and looked like thick Frisbees. Their purpose was to immobilize a tank or other military vehicle.

Three sticks of C4 plastic explosive were placed atop the mines, then an engineer pulled the tab on a detonator. Five minutes later, a bright, red light cut through the darkness, followed by a loud boom.

The mines were no more.

Good thing, too. That afternoon, the battalion had seen the damage they can inflict. One of its gun trucks ran over one, and the blast took out a large chunk of its front end.

No one was hurt.

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