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Weapons caches become playgrounds for Baghdad's children

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Welcome to suburban Baghdad's newest playground: It's on the northern edge of the slum called Saddam City, down in a series of pitch-black underground tunnels.

On the mud hill above the tunnels, children, mostly boys from 4 to 14 years old, race around, drop to a knee, aim real guns at one another and laugh, or simply point them in the air and—bap-bap-bap—squeeze off a quick burst.

But the prize toys are underground: hand grenades. Artillery shells. Rockets. And, of course, more AK-47s like the ones the boys are playing with.

Leftover weapons caches are everywhere in this country, and since the fall of Saddam Hussein's tyrannical regime, people are discovering them, getting a first glimpse of the seemingly endless supply of weapons and ammunition he used to keep Iraq under his control.

It doesn't take much time in Baghdad to find evidence of these caches. It's commonplace to see men walking with machine guns slung over their shoulders. Used shells litter the gutters. Saturday afternoon near downtown, a gaggle of kids raced up to a group of U.S. Marines carrying a gift: a box of .50 caliber bullets and a promise of crates of hand grenades to be found in the park just across the street.

U.S. military spokesmen describe the vast, hidden stores as a nightmare.

"We are finding hundreds of these places every day," said Marine Capt. Joe Plenzler, a spokesman for the 1st Marine Division. Most are aboveground. "Countries spend their money on guns and butter. Iraq sure didn't spend money on butter."

Sheik Haleem al Fatlwey, of a nearby mosque, said Muslims were aware of and concerned about the proliferation of weapons in Baghdad, especially those found by children.

"We have asked the parents to please take away the weapons and return them to the mosques," he said. "It is a problem in many places right now."

Few places offer as many guns and ammo as this fake hill where the children play war. The caves are so dark there is no visibility; eyes can't see a hand touching the nose in front of them.

The boys first tried going through the tunnels without lights, but too often they tripped. The floor in this cement bunker, with 10-foot-high ceilings and thick walls, is even, but it's covered several feet deep in some places by munitions.

So to see, the boys grab wooden stakes, tie rags to them, dip the rags in gasoline and light them. The tiny torches make perfect lanterns, and the boys hunch over so the small circles of light can illuminate the treasures under their feet.

Most of the large explosives are still crated, but several crates have broken and spilled their contents. Hand grenades roll under foot. Walking across a pile of mortars and artillery shells becomes a high-stakes game of log-rolling. Shotgun shells cover the floors of entire rooms.

Boys haul the guns, the AKs and big mounted machine guns, out into the daylight. They play with them. Some also fetch the bullets that the weapons fire.

Where are the adults in this potential horror scene? They are here too. Men gather around, tsking that the boys are using flames in the tunnels. The men hold flashlights instead.

They explain that people here always feared what went on behind what used to be a high-voltage electric fence with security cameras on the corners. They tell tales of black sedans with blackened windows pulling up to heavily guarded gates after midnight. A legion of guards walked the grounds. The people became convinced it was a secret underground prison.

And so, as soon as the nearby warehouses were consumed by spouting flames this week, they went to search out the entrances to this suspected prison, to free uncles, brothers, friends who had vanished under Saddam over the past 20 years.

As the boys played war atop the hill, 30 men gathered around a large scoop crane. One man knew how to use it. Another sat outside the cab and directed the digging. They created pit after pit around the site, which was 10 feet deep and 15 feet across.

Juwait Karum pointed to large electrical cables that ran into the ground as evidence that people were kept below.

"There is no need for this much electricity in this building," he said. "This prison must extend at least four stories underground. It is obvious."

Sabah Mahjeed disagreed, drawing a picture of a two-story underground prison, hidden beneath the secret armory. Sadly, he says there are no entrances, not even holes for water and air to get through.

Searching for secret prisons has become an obsession in postwar Iraq. Too many people disappeared. Saturday morning, in the very heart of Baghdad, 1,000 people crowded into a major street, shutting it down, after someone uncovered a secret walkway beneath the road and, when he banged twice on a pipe, heard three bangs in reply.

Mohammed Manuer, 18, searched for an uncle lost in the 1980s.

"We have not seen him since, but we believe now we may find him," he said.

Back at the tunnels, a boy was leaving, heading home with a smile. He held a gift for his mother: 20 shiny cans of CS gas, or tear gas. He pointed at the shiny containers and explained, "this is nice aluminum."


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+WEAPONS