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Iraq

An arsenal of random destruction strikes fear

Basra's streets, yards and parks are filled with war's weapons. Some explode by accident; others have fallen into the hands of criminals.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 7, 2003

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BASRA, Iraq - At first glance, the building has a jaunty nautical air.

A large anchor is painted on the front; the signage, in red, white and blue, proclaims that this is Iraqi Marine Sport Club, property of Saddam Hussein.

As British soldiers walk past on patrol, the only water they see is a stagnant puddle. And if Hussein ever set foot in the place, it was long before it became a squatter's camp for a homeless family of 10.

One of them, a teenage boy, calls out to Cpl. Darren Lethley. The teenager signals that he has seen, or knows of, something dangerous nearby.

After a few minutes of digging, the soldiers unearth five Russian-made surface-to-air missiles. Traveling at three times the speed of sound they could knock a plane out of the sky. Or if accidentally detonated, they could blow the Marine Club and everything around it to smithereens.

Before British and American forces attacked in March, the Iraqi army stockpiled countless missiles, mortars, guns, grenades and other weapons. After the war began, many soldiers fled, but they left behind deadly armaments that are turning up all over southern Iraq.

Two small children in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, were killed last weekend when an object they were playing with suddenly blew up. An American demolition expert found 82 unexploded mortars lying in the middle of a heavily traveled highway. British soldiers searching a Baath Party headquarters discovered hundreds of guns, AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and tons of ammunition.

And in one bizarre case, squatters who had moved into a vacant house near a British base had just started to cook a meal when things began to explode. Ammunition apparently had been hidden in the stove.

"We're finding stuff all over the place," said Capt. Martine McNee of the Royal Engineers. "The engineers' first priority was to clear routes and make sure no (troops) got blown up by anything. Now the risk is to the local population going about their daily lives with all this stuff here."

Iraqi citizens are being injured and killed not just by accident but also on purpose. Many of the abandoned weapons have wound up in the hands of thieves, looters and car jackers riding a wave of lawlessness now that police forces have disappeared along with the rest of Hussein's government.

"It is not safe here," said Mohammed Kuradi, who owns a small hotel that has been closed since the war. "I am afraid to go out at night."

Kuradi, 50, is also afraid to go out in the day. At 2 p.m. one recent afternoon, he returned to his house to get some papers and left his '95 Mitsubishi pickup parked on a busy street just a few yards away.

As he returned to the truck, three scruffy men with guns appeared from nowhere, shoved him out and fired at him. Then they drove off.

Just a minute or two later, a British tank rumbled by and "I signaled them to stop," he said. "But nobody paid any attention to me."

Kuradi had hoped to reopen his hotel this week. That will be impossible now because it is 12 miles away, and he can't afford to buy another truck.

As he spoke to two American journalists a few hours later, Kuradi was still so shaken that he forgot his fluent English and repeatedly lapsed into Arabic. But he was unharmed, unlike 18-year-old Mohammed Abdul Hussein.

Hussein, a taxi driver, picked up three passengers one morning. The man sitting behind him thwacked him on the head with a gun, and the others threw him out of the car.

Then one man reached into what looked like a basket of fruit. Instead, it was full of grenades. As Hussein lay on the ground, the men threw a live grenade at him and drove off in his Toyota.

Several days later, he remains at the former Saddam Hospital - renamed Basra Educational Hospital - recovering from severe injuries to the bowels and intestines. The car was later found, but it had been stripped and riddled with bullets.

There also was a dead body inside.

Hussein's older brother, Mukdam, said they live in an area of Basra that "is dangerous night and day because most of the neighbors are keeping guns they stole from the army."

"In every place inside the city, in every company, in every park, the army used to camp, so when the army withdrew they left their weapons."

Mukdam Hussein shares the common view that almost every family in this city of 1.3-million has at least one gun at home. But like most of those interviewed, he insists he is among the very few who are not armed.

"I have no weapons because that would put me in danger again," he said. Still, he seems familiar with the black market - he said a Kalashnikov goes for 180,000 dinars - $72 - while a grenade can be had for as little as 3,000 dinars, slightly more than $1.

"There is some weapons trading, but you have to be trusted to buy anything," Hussein explained. "Anybody can buy and sell a weapon, but he must be trusted. You have to go to some place and be well known and then you must ask, "Where can I buy a gun?' Then they might give you directions."

During Saddam Hussein's time, common crime was rare because the punishments were severe - someone who committed a simple theft had his hand amputated. But with the breakdown of law and order and the easy availability of weapons, criminals have become exceptionally brazen and they are extremely unlikely to be caught.

"We are losing our safety day by day," Hussein said.

The British are starting to train a new Basra police force to replace the old one that was laced with Baath Party members and thugs from the previous regime. But given their history, cops are held in low regard in Iraq and it is hard to find good recruits.

When members of the 1st Battalion of the Black Watch went on patrol this weekend, they were accompanied by 29-year-old Monem Juad, one of Basra's new police officers. He is paid 35,000 dinars - $14 - every two weeks.

Juad poked along, and seemed bored by what the soldiers were doing, even when they dug up the surface-to-air missiles at the marine club. Nor did he express any interest in hunting for other weapons or cracking down on criminals who continue to endanger the populace.

In fact, he didn't like being a policeman at all. "There's no future in it," he said.

Juad preferred his old job: cook in a restaurant.

- Susan Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com

BASRA (pronounced BAHS-rah): A port city and provincial capital in southeastern Iraq. Population estimates range from 1.3-million to 1.7-million, and it is considered Iraq's second-largest city. It was badly damaged during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s and the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Predominantly Shiite Muslim, Basra suffered neglect and often repression under Saddam Hussein.

Since British troops captured Basra, stability is beginning to return, although nightly gunfire continues. For two weeks, there was rampant looting and no running water, electricity or phone service. British engineers continued to struggle to restart services. Electricity remained at only 45 percent capacity. The Red Cross said the water supply was 60 to 70 percent operational (almost the same as before the war). Huge amounts of water in tankers is being delivered by the military and aid agencies, but demand outstrips the supply. British officials have said Basra's infrastructure was not badly damaged by allied bombing and blame looting for most of the delay in restoring services.

- Sources: Columbia Gazetteer, Columbia Encyclopedia, BBC World News, Associated Press

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