Shiite militia fighters start turning in weapons in Baghdad

Monday, October 11th 2004, 11:16 am
By: News On 6

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ Followers of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr trickled in to police stations in Baghdad's Sadr City district to hand in weapons Monday in a first step toward bringing peace to the Shiite militant stronghold after weeks of fighting with U.S. forces.

In western Mosul, meanwhile, a suicide car bomb exploded as an American military convoy was passing by, killing at least two Iraqis and wounding 18, witnesses said. Initial reports indicated there also were also military casualties, a U.S. statement said, without providing figures.

Also Monday, Al-Arabiya television broadcast video of three hooded gunmen threatening to behead a Turkish hostage within three days unless the Americans release all Iraqi prisoners and all Turks leave Iraq.

In preparation for the turnover of weapons, checkpoints were set up along the roads to three Sadr City police stations, and Iraqi National Guard members took up positions on surrounding rooftops.

At al-Nasr station, police Maj. Kadhim Salman said fighters had turned in machine guns, TNT paste, land mines and other explosives. Many of the weapons appeared old and rusted. Nonetheless, the government was hopeful the process would spell the end of the Shiite revolt and enable the Americans and their Iraqi allies to shift attention to the more extensive Sunni Muslim insurgency.

``Until that process is completed and until Iraqi Government itself is satisfied, it is way too early to characterize it as a success,'' Lt. Col. James Hutton of the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division said.

Fighters are supposed to be compensated for the weapons, but Salman said those responsible for the payments hadn't turned up yet. Instead, receipts were issued.

The rates ranged from $5 for a hand grenade to $1,000 for a heavy-caliber machine gun, police said.

Malik Jomaa walked up to the station with a white bag containing two grenade launchers slung over his shoulder.

``God willing, there will be no more fighting and Sadr City will live in peace,'' the 20-year-old fighter said.

Outside the Habibiya police station, a pickup truck offloaded some 20 grenade launchers and dozens of mortar rounds, Associate Press Television News footage showed. Guns and explosives were spread out on the ground. U.S. soldiers supervised the process from a distance.

Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army agreed over the weekend to hand in its medium and heavy weapons in Sadr City. The arms transfer is supposed to last five days, after which Iraqi police and National Guardsmen will assume security responsibility for the slum, home to more than 2 million people.

In return, the government has promised to start releasing detained al-Sadr followers, provided they did not commit crimes. It has also suspended raids in the northeastern Baghdad district.

Vice President Ibrahim al-Jaafari welcomed the handover as a ``good and positive initiative,'' telling APTN that he hoped other insurgent enclaves would follow Sadr City's example.

Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's interim administration has committed more than $500 million to rebuilding Sadr City, scene of heavy clashes between U.S. troops and al-Sadr's militia.

This is not the first time Iraqi authorities have tried to make peace with the Mahdi Army. A peace deal brokered after heavy fighting in the holy city of Najaf in August allowed the militia to walk away with its weapons, and clashes continued in Sadr City.

So far, al-Sadr has not pledged to disband his militia, a key U.S. and Iraqi government demand. But American and Iraqi authorities are eager to end the clashes in the Shiite stronghold so they can concentrate on suppressing the country's more widespread Sunni insurgency.

The arms transfer came after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, making an unannounced visit to Iraq, said Iraqis must take ``the seeds of security'' that the U.S. military has planted and grow their political and economic system.

``We can help, but we can't do it. You have to do it,'' Rumsfeld told senior Iraqi commanders on Sunday.

Elsewhere, two U.S. soldiers from Task Force Baghdad were killed and five wounded Monday in a rocket attack in southern Baghdad, the military said.

More than 1,000 members of the U.S. military have died since American-led forces invaded Iraq in March 2003.

Clashes continued Monday between U.S. forces and insurgents in Hit, 100 miles west of Baghdad. Police Capt. Nasir Abdullah reported heavy exchanges of fire. At least two Iraqis were killed and 15 wounded, a hospital said.

Rocket-propelled grenade explosions and machine gun fire also rocked the insurgent stronghold of Ramadi overnight. Residents said by telephone that insurgents launched attacks in a half-dozen parts of Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, and that four huge explosions shook the city center. Blood stained the streets Monday and there was heavy damage to the central library.

Rumsfeld traveled 12 hours Sunday from an air base in Iraq's western desert to the protective zone in Baghdad where the U.S. Embassy and the interim Iraqi government are preparing for January elections, to the provincial capital of Kirkuk in the north.

He said he saw evidence the Iraqis are on the right track, but that a lot of effort was still needed.

``It won't be easy and it won't be smooth,'' he told several hundred South Koreans over dinner at their new outpost on the outskirts of Irbil, west of Kirkuk, the final stop on his whirlwind one-day tour.

Rumsfeld's visit came as car bombers struck twice in rapid succession Sunday in Baghdad, killing at least 11 people, including an American soldier.

Iraq's most feared terror group _ Tawhid and Jihad _ claimed responsibility for the near-simultaneous car bombings, one near an east Baghdad police academy and the other outside an east Baghdad market as an American military convoy was passing by.

An American soldier was fatally injured in the convoy attack, U.S. officials said. One Iraqi was wounded in that attack. The Kindi Hospital said it received 10 bodies from the police academy blast, and police said 15 others were injured there.

The dead at Kindi hospital included three police academy students and a female officer.

In the Al-Arabiya broadcast, one of the three gunmen identified the kidnappers of the Turkish hostage as Tawhid and Jihad, which has been responsible for beheading several foreign hostages. However, the tape did not feature the group's banner, which has always appeared in its video statements.

``We of the group of Tawhid and Jihad announce ... that we will cut off the head of this hostage if our demands are not met,'' the speaker said as the hostage's eyes darted from one side to another. ``We have long warned them not to enter the land of Islam and land of Jihad, the land of Iraq.''

The video showed the hostage's passport, but the name could not be determined.

On Sunday, Al-Jazeera television said 10 employees of the Turkish construction company VISNAN have been freed by kidnappers. They were said to have been held by another Islamic group, the Salafist Brigades of Abu Bakr al-Siddiq.

The Ankara-based VINSAN company also could not confirm the release. An employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, said efforts to free their employees were continuing ``positively.''

Insurgents have kidnapped more than 150 foreigners in a bid to drive out coalition forces and hamper reconstruction. Most have been kidnapped for ransom and freed unharmed, but at least 28 have been killed by their abductors.