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Dispatch from the 101st

Iraq saturated with hidden weapons

By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2003

AN NAJAF, Iraq -- Almost every night, Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Kumm and his men trundle out to the desert with a truckload of that day's haul. The explosion that follows invariably scares the stripes off the men back at camp. Then the engineers return and wait for the next load of enemy munitions to destroy.

Monday morning, Kumm opened his green notebook and examined the tally of captured weapons for the last four days in Najaf. It read like a wish list for death and destruction, and suggested caution to Americans who think U.S. tanks in Baghdad automatically mean peace in Iraq:

Nearly 100 rocket propelled grenade rounds, four antiaircraft guns, one armored personnel carrier, 100 fragmentation grenades, 100 mines, cases of machine gun ammo, several mortars and stacks of 60mm mortar rounds.

Plus a smattering of small arms, and map coordinates for a half-dozen minefields, including two with an estimated 1,000 mines each.

"I'm running out of toys," Kumm said. "I've used about 60 percent of the brigade's demolition."

Even if Baghdad fell tomorrow, U.S. troops in other parts of Iraq would still face a well-armed, if fractious, enemy force.

Since the 101st Airborne Division took Najaf last week, patrols from the 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry have conducted search and destroy missions throughout the city, following tips from residents and intelligence sources about weapons stockpiles or Iraqi fighters.

The fighters have been elusive, likely blending with the local population or escaping to other towns, such as Hallil. But behind almost every door the soldiers have kicked in, they've discovered piles of rocket-propelled grenades, boxes of ammunition, lots of mortars and mines.

"We've been finding small, guerrilla-type caches," Kumm said. "The ones where they can go to a house or a school, grab a couple mortars, pop them off in our direction, then go back home and go to sleep."

Most of the caches have turned up in empty schools and government buildings in small piles scattered in locked rooms, apparently to prevent the Americans from finding them all in one convenient place.

The going is slow, and American commanders acknowledge they will leave many caches intact as they move north toward Bagdad.

"Iraq is like Texas in 1888," said Staff Sgt. Kadhim Al-Waeli, an Iraqi expatriate who now lives in St. Louis. He is a member of the Free Iraqi Forces, a U.S.-led opposition force.

"Everyone has a weapon. They're everywhere here."

Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. Central Command in Tampa and leader of the war in Iraq, toured Najaf Monday and awarded the Bronze Star for bravery to two soldiers from the 327th Infantry, Sgt. James Ward, of 1st Battalion, and Sgt. Lucas Goddard of 3rd Battalion.

It was Franks' first trip to Iraq since the war began, and he also toured a massive cache of captured weapons and ammunition, including RPGs, three antiaircraft guns, stacks of 60mm mortar rounds, boxes of Soviet bayonets and about 3,000 AK-47 rifles.

Most were found in local schools.

"We have an awful lot to be proud of, but we realize that the hardest part may well be in the future," Franks said as he left. "We're going to continue this not only until the war is won, but until the peace is done."

That may be a while. Even in Najaf, a major Shiite Muslim city considered mostly under control by American troops, Humvees struck several mines Sunday as they rolled through an area soldiers had cleared of mines the day before, indicating the fields had been reseeded during the night.

Saturday night, five soldiers from 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry were injured in an ambush as they patroled a downtown neighborhood, near the site where a marble statue of Hussein was demolished last week. Their Humvee first struck a mine in a previously cleared area of the road.

With the vehicle disabled and several soldiers injured by shrapnel, Iraqi fighters let loose with a machine gun, wounding five, two seriously.

In Bosnia, Kosovo and Somalia, American troops have dealt with large numbers of weapons caches they could hit only piecemeal. According to the Counter Mine Center, a public-private antimine group, there are approximately 10-million mines deployed in Iraq, or 60 per square mile.

The Americans mark what they find, but the task of clearing those mines primarily will be left for peacekeeping forces and nongovernment organizations that specialize in mine removal.

"A unit that comes in three units from now, three years from now, on six-month rotations will still be finding caches here," said Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, commander of the 2nd Battalion of the 327th Infantry. "You don't survive a 30-year-old dictatorship . . . and manage to stay alive throughout all the coups and wars with one weapons cache in Baghad."

Despite how it may appear on TV, not all allied forces are rushing to Bagdad. There is still fighting in Karbala, and the 101st Airborne is sending an entire brigade of troops, the 187th Infantry, plus the 2nd Battalion of the 327th Infantry to Hallil, site of ancient Babylon, about 30 miles north of Najaf.

Their mission is to destroy what's thought to be an entrenched force of Iraqi Army regulars and bands of Islamic militants, and Palestinian, Egyptian, and Syrian fighters, among others.

U.S. intelligence officials think they retreated to Hallil after being driven from Najaf and Karbala. The 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne was surprised by the strength of force there last week, and a big fight is expected.

"They haven't surrendered, they haven't capitulated, they're still in the area," Hughes said. "The key to them not popping up is the realization there's no reason to rise again because the regime is gone. But I'm sure there are guys who are hidden in the desert right now who are waiting to come back."

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