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U.S. institutes gun controls in Iraq in effort to curb crime

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Faced with a heavily armed population and a severe crime wave, U.S. forces in Iraq on Friday outlined a new weapons policy that bans automatic and heavy weapons.

Iraqis will be able to register small-caliber arms to keep in their businesses or homes, but will not be able to carry them outside, said the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. David McKiernan.

The sudden collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime last month and the inability of the United States forces to quickly contain looting allowed thousands of Iraqis to raid military bases, weapons warehouses and ammunition dumps. Brazen armed gunmen became a common sight in Baghdad, and carjackings, once a rarity in Iraq, exploded. The crime wave has slowed in recent days.

The order will prevent most Iraqis from carrying concealed weapons, owning machine guns and other powerful weapons, and shooting into the air to celebrate—a common occurrence across Baghdad that keeps residents and soldiers on edge.

In another move meant to convince Iraqis that their security would be improved, the top American civilian administrator, L. Paul Bremer, formally dissolved the Iraqi military, a once imposing fighting force, and ended the draft.

The order banned key elements of Saddam's military machine: the Republican Guard, the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Information.

Since Iraq's once-feared military was decimated or forced into hiding during the U.S. invasion, the order was largely symbolic.

"These actions are part of a robust campaign to show the Iraqi people that the Saddam regime is gone, and will never return," the order stated.

Even though Saddam has been forced from power, many Iraqis are concerned that Saddam or his allies are biding their time and preparing to retake control of their nation. Last week, some residents were unnerved when they found small photographs of the deposed leader in a Baghdad park, along with a warning that he would return.

"I'm very afraid," said Jihad al Munthuri, a civil engineer touring Saddam's Republican Palace. "I spent my entire life frightened of Saddam Hussein—do you think I'm not going to be afraid now?"

Military commanders admit that the problem of widespread weapons use is immense. In the past month, soldiers seized more than 17,000 guns, 30 million rounds of ammunition, more than 70,000 rocket-propelled grenades and almost as many hand grenades in Baghdad alone, according to Army documents.

Bremer and McKiernan have been working to bring the problem under control by placing more soldiers on the streets and putting criminals in detention centers for longer periods of time.

As a first step under the new policy, Iraqis will be offered an amnesty period to turn in illegal weapons.

One of the more touchy issues will be how to deal with the very visible private security forces armed with machine guns that stand guard at the headquarters for Iraq's leading political groups. McKiernan indicated that there may be some curbs on those forces, but did not offer any details.

One group that will be allowed to retain its weapons is the peshmerga, the Kurdish military force that worked alongside U.S. forces in the north to defeat Iraq's military.

Another thorny issue is likely to be open-air arms bazaars. The Army has been trying to shut them down, but they continue to pop up around the nation.

One of the newest ones has set up shop in a wide dirt turnout about 20 minutes north of Baghdad on the outskirts of a small village. On any given morning, hundreds of prospective buyers and sellers can be found haggling over AK-47s, Russian-made rifles, revolvers and a range of other weapons. Machine guns were going for about $80, handguns for $25.

Earlier this week, weapons dealers at the bazaar dismissed the impending crackdown and said they would go on selling their wares no matter what U.S. officials do.

Lateef Abel Quadm said many Iraqis were forced to buy weapons to protect their homes because U.S. forces had failed to crack down on crime after the war.

"America created this chaos," he said as he leaned on a semi-automatic rifle. "Nobody will obey this order until there is peace in Iraq."

In another development, soldiers seized 2,000, 40-pound gold bars that could be worth up to $500 million at al Qaim, near the Syrian border, on Thursday, U.S. Central Command reported in a statement. Soldiers from the 1st Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, took two people into custody who said they had been paid the equivalent of $350 to pick up the truck in Baghdad and drive it to someone in al Qaim, the statement said.


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Tim Potter in Baghdad contributed to this report.)


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

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