Gun handover starts
BAGHDAD — Shiite fighters in tracksuits and sneakers unloaded cars full of machine guns, mortars and land mines Monday as a five-day, weapons-for-cash 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 on the mounting Sunni insurgency. Underscoring the threat, two American soldiers were killed in a rocket attack in southern Baghdad, and a third U.S. soldier died when a suicide driver exploded a car bomb in front of a U.S. convoy in the northern city of Mosul.
U.S. aircraft attacked a mosque in the predominantly Sunni town of Hit and set it on fire after insurgents hiding in the shrine opened fire on American Marines, the U.S. military said.
In the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, a U.S. warplane destroyed a popular restaurant 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. There was no report of casualties, and the Haj Hussein restaurant was closed during the attack at 12:01 a.m. today.
In Sadr City, 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. 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 al-Sadr followers who have not committed crimes, suspend raids and rebuild the war-ravaged slum.
Members of al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army started showing up at three designated police stations early yesterday 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 $5 for a hand grenade to $1,000 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 surrender will be the first step toward restoring peace in Sadr City.
“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 each other with suspicion. Many militia fighters and even some 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 said. “Whatever it takes, we’ll do.”
Elsewhere, two U.S. soldiers were killed and five wounded in a rocket attack yesterday in southern Baghdad, the military said. No further details were disclosed. A series of heavy explosions rocked the city after nightfall.
In Mosul, 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, the U.S. command said. City hospitals reported at least two Iraqis killed and 18 wounded.
The attack on the mosque in Hit, part of Iraq’s Sunni heartland northwest of Baghdad, came on 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, said Dr. Fouad al-Heeti at the hospital in the town 100 miles west of Baghdad.
“Mosques are granted protective status due to their religious and cultural significance,” the Marines said in a statement. “However, when insurgents violate the sanctity of the mosque by using the structure for military purposes, the site loses its protective status.”
In Ramadi, the scene of fierce fighting overnight, insurgents fired two rockets at city hall yesterday, 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, 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.
U.S. Marines killed a would-be suicide car bomber yesterday as he was speeding to their position south of Baghdad, the U.S. command said. The attack occurred as the 2nd Battalion, 24th Marines was detonating weapons and ammunition found during a sweep around Youssifiyah.
Also yesterday, an Islamic 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.