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Iraq: Few Residents Willing To Bid Farewell To Arms

Less than a week has passed since U.S. authorities in Iraq began a two-week gun amnesty aimed at restoring safety in the country. But so far the scheme appears to be having little impact. Some 300 weapons have been turned in -- a tiny fraction in a country teeming with guns. As RFE/RL reports, few Iraqis are willing to give up their weapons as long as looting and other crimes continue.

Baghdad, 5 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The sound of gunfire has become commonplace in Baghdad, where Iraqi police estimate that citizens may have seized up to 3 million firearms in the days following the fall of the city.

Hoping to clear the capital and the rest of the country of its firearms, the U.S.-led provisional authority on 1 June launched a two-week gun amnesty. The plan allows Iraqis to rid themselves of large unauthorized weapons with no fear of punishment. The Associated Press reports that citizens who do not comply by sunset on 14 June could receive up to a year in prison, plus a $1,000 fine.

The measure is aimed at restoring law and order throughout Iraq in the wake of the U.S.-led war. Looting, burglary, and murder has been on the rise in the lawless atmosphere that has prevailed since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in April.

But response to the U.S. scheme has been negligible. As of yesterday, just 300 weapons had been returned to police points in all of Iraq, including fewer than 100 in Baghdad.

Neighborhood sweeps in the capital were similarly ineffective, turning up just a handful of weapons. Throughout Iraq, residents are complaining that U.S. authorities are trying to rob them of their only means of defending their businesses and families.

Captain Hakim Ruzak works at police headquarters in the Baghdad neighborhood of Western Al-Karkh, a designated point for dropping off unauthorized weapons or registering small arms for use defending homes or businesses.

Ruzak says over 100 Iraqis have come to his station to register their handguns, but very few have actually relinquished their weapons.

He says most Iraqis do not feel safe giving up their guns, and fear that even the process of turning over large weapons will cause them trouble at U.S. checkpoints, where they may not be able to explain their intentions.

"This is what happened -- misunderstanding and hesitation. People do not have a clear understanding of the procedures of how to hand over their weapons," Ruzak says.

U.S. Army officer Josh Clealand commands the American soldiers working with the Iraqi police on weapons collection. He says he, too, is disappointed by the results so far:

"In the last four days we have been running this, we have taken multiple AK-47s [Kalashnikovs], some grenades, other kinds of demolition materials -- but that's basically all we've taken so far," Clealand says.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that the rules of the amnesty appear to be changing. "The New York Times" reported this week that U.S. soldiers conducting house-to-house weapons searches are now allowing Iraqis to keep one Kalashnikov per family.

It is unclear how U.S. authorities will respond if the gun amnesty is deemed a failure. But Ruzak says Iraqi police are ready to take tougher steps in the weeks ahead.

"We will enforce the law. We will arrest people who have unlicensed guns, and they will face a sentence of up to one year. Those who trade arms will face a sentence of more than a year," he says.

It is difficult to imagine, however, what Iraqi police officers could to do disarm the Baghdadis. Of the 2,000 police officers manning the Western Al-Karkh headquarters, only 450 carry Kalashnikov rifles. An additional 500 carry pistols, and the rest are unarmed. Ruzak admits that the few weapons they have confiscated to date are like a drop in the ocean.

Pistols were legally issued under the Hussein regime in Iraq, which has a traditional gun culture. Now, in the power vacuum that has followed Hussein's ouster, firearms are inexpensive and readily available at city gun markets. A Kalashnikov can be bought for $70. A hand grenade sells for just $3; mortar shells for $2.

Baghdad residents have different attitudes about the gun amnesty. Wassam Muhammed is a shopkeeper in central Baghdad, an area actively patrolled by U.S. troops. He says the amnesty is a good idea.

"Yes, we are ready to give up our weapons, because this step will bring more security. It is a very good plan," Muhammed says.

He says even with a gun, there is little he can do to defend himself, adding: "Our security is in the hands of God and the Americans who patrol the area."

Not all Baghdadis agree. Another shopkeeper, Waseem Jusef, says he refuses to leave himself vulnerable to armed U.S. soldiers: "It's the wrong step. We will not give up our weapons, because [without them] we would be like the Palestinians. We will have to hit [the Americans] with stones and they will hit us with bullets."

Waseem says guns are a part of Iraq's culture and a sign of honor. For this reason, he adds, the amnesty is destined to fail.