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Iraq: Prime Minister Extends Arms Amnesty

(file photo) Iraq's government will launch a nationwide arms-collection campaign next week. The campaign will build on a relatively successful arms-for-cash program going on in Baghdad's Al-Sadr City area. Prime Minister Iyad Allawi says the program will first be extended to the southern, mainly Shi'a city of Al-Basrah, and then possibly to the rest of the country.

Prague, 19 October 2004 -- Iraq's interim government is hoping to rid the country of many of its excess weapons before nationwide elections, which are scheduled for January.

The program in Al-Sadr City is in its second week. Colonel Sharek Zayer of the Iraqi National Guard says people appear eager to get rid of their weapons: "We extended the deadline [for surrendering arms] for another three days due to the large quantity of weapons which have come in. We are able to absorb a quarter of what has been returned. Even the three-day extension is not enough. The purpose of this is to disarm [radical cleric] Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, and [militia members] have responded fully and have brought in their medium-sized and heavy weapons."
A Russian-made Kalashnikov gun could be bought for $200-$250 -- and fetch $300 at a weapons-collection point. This left a nice profit.

The U.S. military says al-Sadr's fighters have turned in about 700 rocket-propelled grenades and about 400 mortar shells, along with hundreds of lighter weapons, and that the Iraqi government has paid about $1.2 million in return.

Ala Abd al-Zara, a militia fighter, says he turned in his weapons because he doesn't want to have any problems with the government: "I delivered weapons because of the agreement between the army and the leaders [of the militia] and because we don't want any problems among the people. And I hope there won't be any in the future."

Saad al-Hassani, a freelance journalist and political analyst at Baghdad University, says attitudes toward the arms amnesty have changed for the better in recent days. He says last week when the program was just starting, people were getting rid of mostly older guns. Now, more and more, people are bringing in weapons in better condition.

He says much of the reason is that people simply want the cash.

He says in the early days of the amnesty an informal black market arose where people could buy guns cheaply and turn them in for more money. A Russian-made Kalashnikov gun, for example, could be bought for $200-$250 -- and fetch $300 at a weapons-collection point. This left a nice profit.

He says prices have since risen and weapons are harder to get.

"I have an idea only about the price of the Kalashnikov. It depends, of course, on the manufacturer of the Kalashnikov itself. For example, the Russian type used to cost almost $200 or $250. Now it has risen to $400 or $500. That is double the price."

This, he says, shows the program could work nationwide. "If the government is going, you know, to allocate huge amounts of money, I think this would be a very good idea actually in controlling the situation, the security situation."

Iraq is awash in thousands -- if not millions -- of guns. Still, Iraqi authorities are optimistic.

Allawi says the campaign is part of efforts to prepare for January elections. The ongoing violence has led many -- including the United Nations, which must run the polls -- to question whether the vote can be held at all.

Allawi says the government is determined to disarm cities and neighborhoods. And he says there's no justification for people to keep weapons at home.

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