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Before Baghdad can return to order, buildings must be disarmed

BAGHDAD—U.S. forces struggling to get Iraqi help policing the streets and reopening schools are encountering an extraordinary request: Please disarm my back yard first.

In one stunning discovery Sunday, a software engineer led two Marines to an orange trailer a block from a middle-class neighborhood—with four huge missiles stacked inside. On first inspection, Marine Lt. Michael Cerroni, 27, of Carthage, N.Y., said they appeared to be Soviet-made Frog-7 missiles, capable of carrying high-explosive or chemical warheads.

"I just found it, and I don't feel safe about it and neither should you," said Cerroni, backing away from the site. He then dispatched a removal team.

In another discovery, Marines raided a school over the weekend, routed Fedayeen militia fighters and found row after row of suicide bomb belts—neatly sewn into fashionable brown leather cowboy-style vests. They were loaded with ball bearings and explosives. U.S. troops also found briefcases packed with explosives and a huge stack of membership cards bearing names and pictures of the Saddam Fedayeen.

And in yet another find, Marines found more than 5,000 rocket-propelled grenades stacked floor-to-ceiling in another school, as well as antitank and surface-to-air missiles stored in the school. U.S. forces had already made 30 dump-truck runs outside city limits and blew up the munitions, Cerroni said, "and we're still not done."

The discoveries underscore the monumental task facing U.S. troops as they try to shift from fighting the Fedayeen and other pockets of Baath Party resistance to bringing food and water and restoring peace to this 2,000-square-mile metropolis with as many as 6.4 million people.

Looting continued in mind-boggling magnitude Sunday, still aimed at Baath Party officials' homes as well as government institutions ranging from local power stations to schools and hospitals.


An illustration of the chaos: Young men and boys could be seen carrying huge piles of license plates—for taxis, trucks, private cars—from a shop a block away from the police academy, where former policemen trickled in Sunday to see about their old jobs. But no one in authority turned up.

Another: Traffic officer Jasem Taher al Bahadali, 44, showed up in his uniform along a chaotic street near the Palestine Hotel to work Sunday, telling reporters that he chose the spot because "it's crowded and not organized here, so I came to see what I could do." Young men then shouted him down, "You are cooperating with the Americans and the Jews."

U.S. forces are struggling with what to do first. The stunning long-range missile development was a case in point. Cerroni's unit had set up in a clinic in the Muthana neighborhood two days ago to invite ideas from community members on how to get local schools and hospitals working.

But first, he said, they had to disarm the building because Iraqi forces had turned it into a military base for the war. Then, starting Saturday, neighborhood doctors, lawyers and teachers began showing up to say they wanted to help but needed the forces to first remove stockpiles of rockets and grenades that had been buried in their yards.

Sunday, someone announced over a mosque loudspeaker that the Marines wanted to help reopen schools and establish electricity, and 30 neighborhood men came to the clinic compound, guarded by a single armed amphibious assault vehicle and about a dozen troops.

The lieutenant asked for their support in policing the streets and help reopening schools by Tuesday. That's when a 38-year-old computer software engineer took him to the trailer, its back door swung wide open, revealing the four 9-foot-long missiles.

"We've seen so many rockets. My jaw just dropped. There it was, right on the side of the highway. Anyone with a tractor truck could have backed up and driven away with them."

Cooperation is coming slowly from the Iraqis.

When U.S. forces are out of sight, those who have not come out of their homes say they resented Saddam's iron-fisted rule—but blame the U.S. troops for bombing their electricity grids, unleashing looting and not protecting hospitals and schools.

"Saddam Hussein's regime was criminal, but the Americans are bigger criminals for letting the people do this," said businessman Tawfik al Daboos, 63. "When the soldiers came, they took care of the oil but not the people's private homes."

He spoke outside a looted power station, where two soldiers had just routed some looters, then stood, guns pointing at the street, until Iraqi engineers went inside and locked the gate. Within minutes, some Baghdadis pulled up at an apartment building across the street and systematically unloaded couches and chairs they had stolen from the Interior Ministry.

"The American military isn't doing anything. There is no law, and they are ruining the country," said Police Capt. Manhal Salem, 28, who came to the police academy Sunday to see whether he could get his job back.

Salem is probably not eligible to return to work. A nine-year veteran of the Interior Ministry police force, he said he is an expert at car bomb disposal.

U.S. Marine Maj. David Cooper, 40, of Oakley, Calif., a civil affairs officer assigned to hear Iraqi complaints, said only traffic police and officers of the criminal investigations unit would go back on the streets. They number no more than 3,000, Cooper said.

Simultaneously, U.S. forces are also trying to find experts here to restore water and electricity, which has been out for two weeks, as part of "the steps we need to take to start stabilizing society." U.S. troops, Cooper said, want "to make sure we don't have a humanitarian disaster explode out of this thing."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.