by Borzou Daragahi / San Francisco Chronicle Foreign Service –
BAGHDAD (August 26, 2003) — Iraqi officials and former army officers say the United States, in its haste to dismantle Saddam Hussein’s rule, has left thousands of pounds of munitions unguarded and accessible to looters and criminals.
“When the Americans came into Iraq, they didn’t secure the military bases,” said former Iraqi Army Brig. Gen. Mohammad Abdullah Nour. “The munitions were everywhere, even on the sidewalks. Not just 500-pound bombs, but 2-ton or 5- ton bombs or 10-ton bombs. The Iraqi army was scattered all over Iraq, and when they abandoned their posts, they left the weapons there.”
The truck bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad on Tuesday has prompted harsh Iraqi criticism of the US and British security operations.
Investigators say the bomb, which killed at least 23 people, including the United Nations’ Iraq point man, Sergio Vieira de Mello, was built of Soviet- era munitions — the mainstay of the Iraqi arsenal — possibly those abandoned and left unguarded following the collapse of Hussein’s government. Hundreds of pounds of mortar and artillery shells were wrapped around a 500-pound bomb.
While US forces hunted for weapons of mass destruction, Iraqis say, criminals made off with bombs, explosives and sophisticated weapons like rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
“Anyone with any military experience could have taken these munitions and made them into bombs,” Nour said. “Leaving them there was a major mistake by the American Army.”
US Army Col. Guy Shields said that American soldiers had been continually disposing of old Iraqi munitions but that the task sometimes seemed never- ending.
Billions for Weapons
Hussein amassed a substantial arsenal before the first Persian Gulf war. According to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Iraq purchased $11 billion in weapons annually from 1988 to 1991, when UN sanctions effectively cut off the supply of arms to the country.
“Hussein spent so much money and bought so much munitions that they’re everywhere,” Shields said. “We try to get rid of them, but every day we find more and more.”
On Sunday, US troops uncovered a huge arms cache near Humarrabi, 60 miles south of Baghdad, containing 300 artillery fuses and 70 bags of gunpowder, along with 400 cases of anti-aircraft ammunition and 200 rocket-propelled grenade rounds, the military said.
Iraq’s relatively unguarded frontiers have also fed the growth of terrorism,
Iraqi officials say, allowing militants to enter the country under the eyes of the United States-led occupying authority.
Warning to Coalition
“We have warned the coalition forces and told them this terrorism is caused by the absence of security and police forces on the borders of Iraq,” Naseer Kamel Chaderchi, a member of Iraq’s 25-person Governing Council, said in an interview. “Many Arabs have entered the border illegally, either from the Syrian border or the Jordanian border or from somewhere else.”
Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, at a Saturday press briefing, conceded that Americans could do more to protect Iraq’s borders. His spokesman, Charles Heatly, said the alliance had been trying to build up Iraq’s border forces. About 13,000 Iraqi border police, customs officials and immigration officers are already stationed along Iraq’s borders, and an additional 7,000 are planned in the coming months. But Heatly said it was not easy protecting Iraq’s long, harsh, porous borders.
“The western border is an arid desert,” he said. “To the north and east you have mountainous areas. Down in the south you have marshlands.”
Iraqi politicians — even those handpicked by the Americans for the Governing Council — have long demanded a greater role in maintaining the country’s security, and the UN bombing has put even more pressure on the American forces to hand over some operations to Iraqis.
“We told them, ‘You don’t know the Iraqi people,’ ” said Raya Habib al- Khusai, another member of the Governing Council. “We know our people, so if you give the security problem to us, we will solve it.”
Chaderchi, a respected lawyer, said American officials in the Coalition Provisional Authority had listened earnestly to pleas to tighten Iraq’s borders, but he added: “They shouldn’t just listen to what we say. They should act.”
In recent weeks, the security issue has become an obsession among Iraqis. One group of purported vigilantes, calling themselves “The Lions of Baghdad,” has distributed flyers vowing to behead looters and thieves and to “disinfect Iraq of the American occupiers.”
At the Mazen Barbershop in Adhamiya, patrons waiting for haircuts discussed kidnappings, rapes and carjackings in the city and speculated about who was behind the bombing at the UN compound and the Aug. 7 blast at the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, which left 11 dead. Few thought the Americans could solve the nation’s security problems.
“In Saddam’s time, there were police, the army and the Baath Party, and they couldn’t control the Iraqi people,” said owner Amar Taleq. “Can the American military control the Iraqi people? I don’t think so.”
Americans, under the direction of former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, have begun building up Iraq’s security forces, training police and border guards. Still, Iraq’s security services have no real investigative branch or counterterrorism force, so the task of investigating both the UN bombing and the bombing of the Jordanian Embassy has fallen to the US military.
“There is no law now,” said Officer Hadem Kadem Majid, a member of the new Iraqi police. “The Americans run everything. We have no authority. We’re not well-equipped or well-armed.”
Many Iraqis question the wisdom of using soldiers — trained primarily to fight and protect themselves and their comrades in the field of battle — as Iraq’s primary security force.
“They are not police people,” said Abdul Mohsen al-Samarayee, a shopkeeper in the wealthy Adhamiya section of town. “They hear a shot 2 kilometers away, and they jump. They want to protect themselves more than protecting the public.”