Shiite militia fighters start turning in weapons in Baghdad

Monday, October 11th 2004, 6:05 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 under a deal seen as a key step toward ending weeks of fighting with U.S. and Iraqi forces in the Shiite militant stronghold.

The arms transfer came after U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, making an unannounced visit to Iraq, said that 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.

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

At al-Nasr station, Police Maj. Kadhim Salman said fighters had turned in machine guns, TNT paste, land mines and other explosives.

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

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,'' said the 20-year-old fighter in a track suit.

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 teeming Shiite slum, which is 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 Monday 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.

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. The names of the dead soldiers were withheld pending notification of their families.

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

In Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, a car bomb exploded Monday as an American military convoy was passing by, witnesses said. First reports indicated it might have been a suicide attack. There was no immediate word on casualties.

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.

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

Rumsfeld traveled 12 hours Sunday from a dusty 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 that 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 in Baghdad Sunday, 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.