Al-Sadr's militia turning over weapons in Iraq

Cash-for-arms program is first step in peace deal

October 12, 2004|By Ashraf Khalil and Caesar Ahmed | Ashraf Khalil and Caesar Ahmed,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Members of Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's al-Mahdi militia began turning over weapons to Iraqi authorities here yesterday as the first step in a fledgling peace agreement designed to end weeks of deadly clashes in the capital.

Loyalists of the Shiite Muslim cleric gathered at three police stations in the capital's Sadr City neighborhood to turn over weaponry. The program, scheduled to run through Friday, offers payments ranging from $11 for a mortar round to $1,000 for a heavy machine gun.

Authorities did not immediately release complete figures on the day's intake. But at the Habibiya police station, an Iraqi national guard officer reported that militants turned over 80 rocket-propelled grenades, more than 30 mortar rounds, 20 heavy machine guns, land mines and explosives.

"The people of Sadr City revealed their true good intentions today, and the money we are giving them only represents a gift of consideration to the people," said the officer, who identified himself only as Major Yehia.

Kareem Shamaisem, a 42-year-old owner of a window glass store who turned over two sniper rifles for $630 each, said: "I follow the laws and rules of the [Shiite religious elite] and the orders of Muqtada al-Sadr, so I gave up these weapons."

`Cautious optimism'

With the buyback program, an Interior Ministry official expressed "cautious optimism" for the prospect of a lasting peace with al-Sadr's forces, who staged uprisings in April and August. The latter revolt ended with the withdrawal of the al-Mahdi fighters from the southern city of Najaf after a three-week siege, with many of the militants migrating to Sadr City.

Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi warned that the Iraqi government is ready to crack down if al-Sadr does not live up to the terms of the weekend peace agreement.

"We hope things will work out. If it doesn't, we will have to do whatever is necessary for the rule of law to prevail," Allawi said during a visit yesterday to Samarra, a northern Sunni Muslim hot spot that was retaken recently by U.S. and Iraqi troops.

The weapons turnover came amid signs of relative calm in Sadr City, which has seen almost nightly clashes and U.S. airstrikes in recent weeks. Police and Iraqi national guardsmen fanned out through the district, controlling traffic and blocking vehicle access to the drop-off points. U.S. tanks and armored vehicles patrolled the streets.

The agreement, if it holds, should smooth al-Sadr's entry into the developing Iraqi political process. The longtime-radical cleric, believed to be about 30, has offered mixed signals about his willingness to join in the parliamentary elections scheduled for January.

Government officials say they plan to wait for full results before declaring the buyback program a success. Previous cease-fire and disarmament agreements with al-Sadr have fallen apart amid accusations of bad faith on both sides. An additional stumbling block could be the refusal of some die-hard al-Mahdi fighters to heed their leader's call for an end to the conflict.

Violence in Iraq

Meanwhile, Islamic militants posted on an Internet site yesterday a videotape that appeared to show the beheading of two hostages, identified as a Turkish contractor and an Iraqi Kurd translator.

Two American troops were killed in a rocket attack in southern Baghdad, and a third soldier died and nine were wounded when a driver detonated a car bomb in front of a U.S. convoy in the northern city of Mosul. Hospital officials reported that 18 civilians were injured. The powerful blast, reportedly from a booby-trapped pickup truck, rattled residents citywide.

Several witnesses said U.S. troops fired at bystanders after the blast.

In the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, a U.S. warplane destroyed a popular restaurant early today that the American command said was a meeting place for members of Iraq's most-feared terrorist organization, Tawhid and Jihad, led by Jordanian-born extremist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The Haj Hussein restaurant was closed during the 12:01 a.m. attack, and there was no report of casualties.

The Internet video released yesterday showed men claiming to be members of the Ansar al Sunna Army appearing to behead two men. A separate statement posted on an Islamic Web site identified the victims as Maher Kemal, a Turkish contractor taken captive Friday on the highway between Mosul and Baghdad, and Luqman Hussein, an Iraqi Kurd who allegedly worked as a translator for U.S. forces.

The al-Qaida-linked Ansar al Sunna Army has claimed responsibility for a series of kidnappings and executions, including the beheading of an Iraqi man Oct. 2 and the execution of 12 Nepalese workers in August.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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