AL JAZRAH, central Iraq—U.S. Army officials said it could take years to catalogue and destroy the tons of weapons it is finding in thousands of weapons and munitions bunkers across Iraq.
Since soon after entering Iraq on March 21, coalition forces have found stockpiles of rounds for AK-47s, boxes of rocket-propelled grenades, vests rigged for suicide bombing missions and various missiles. The munitions have been uncovered in former Iraqi military installations, factories, government buildings, schools and restrooms.
"We have not gone into any city yet where we have not found huge caches," said Gen. Daniel Hahn, chief of staff of the Army's V Corps. "There was an ammunition supply point up in Mosul that had an estimated 1.2 million rounds of mortar ammunition."
Coalition forces have discovered more than 300 weapons and munitions sites, according to Hahn. "Up in Mosul we had in excess of 153, I think we have consolidated about 58 of those," he said Thursday. "Here in Baghdad it's in excess of 150 locations, and we know there is more out there."
"It will take years and years to clear this stuff," said Sgt. David Donell, who runs a demolition team attached to the 4th Infantry Division, 10th Cavalry.
Among the largest caches are two huge weapons storage facilities that the Saddam Hussein government had in a 62-mile stretch from Baiji to Jazrah. Commanders estimate that the site at Jazrah contains more than 300 bunkers loaded with countless munitions ranging from bullets to massive 7-ton al-Samoud missiles, which U.S. officials say may exceed U.N.-sanctioned range limits.
A big concern is that many of the artillery shells, mortars and rockets stored in steel-reinforced bunkers or dirt berms are unstable. Other arsenals or missiles have been placed near schools, hospitals and other public locations, so the Army has to move the weapons before destroying them.
"We call this objective Tinderbox," said Capt. Andy Morgado, 31, from Danbury, Conn. "Look around and I think you'll know why." He pointed to tank shells strewn about a hastily constructed berm. The site covers a little more than three square miles of grassland.
"So it's such a hodgepodge of equipment, sooner or later somebody is going to have to determine where or what type of equipment is going to be part of our future Iraqi defense force," Hahn said.
"The bottom line is that we are in the process of collecting up ammunition and weapons and hauling them to a place where we can properly secure them," he said. "In fact, we're looking for places to permanently secure them that would be useful to a future Iraqi defense force."
Central Command spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Charles Owens said the Army must round up, inventory and destroy all the weapons it finds: "That's the policy. The weapons are not kept or turned over to somebody."
Some munitions and weapons are stored until they can be disposed of properly, depending on the size of the cache found and the capacity of the unit to destroy the cache safely, according to Marine Lt. Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman.
The main concern is getting weapons and munitions out of the hands of those who want to do harm to our forces, Lapan said.
"The priority for me is to find ground to air weapons such as a Stinger missile that could be used by a single person with little or no training," said Lt. Col. Ted Martin, commander of the 10th Cavalry's legendary Buffalo soldiers. "I don't want to leave anything that could say, shoot down an airliner, like the ones used to shoot at Israeli planes in the past. I think they used SA-7s or SA-9s."
On Wednesday, Army engineers needed eight hours to destroy two al-Samoud missiles. The missiles were nestled beside the ancient ruins of the Al Assure castle perched high above the Tigris River. The area is heavily populated.
To avoid injuring civilians or disturbing the delicate historic landmark, the Army loaded the missiles on two transports and hauled them several miles away to a deep trench.
But the weight of the 7-ton, 24-foot-long missiles sank the transport trucks' wheels into the soft earth. After seven hours of winching, hoisting and head-scratching, engineers finally freed the trucks, strapped C-4 plastic explosives on the missiles and detonated them.
Some operations have been more dangerous.
The day before, the 10th Cavalry's Buffalo Soldiers destroyed several surface-to-air missiles. One rocket spun out of control, tearing across a wide grassy plain and right past soldiers before detonating less than a mile away.
"That thing looked like it was coming right at me," added Sgt. Kevin Zeigler, 28, of Braymer, Mo.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Jessica Guynn contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): 4THID