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Forget WMD -- It's Conventional Arms That Are Killing GIs And Iraqis

When the United States turned over sovereignty to the new government of Iraq last month, it did so without confronting one of the most pressing problems facing the country: the millions of small arms and light weapons plaguing Iraq's security and threatening its stability. Excluding small arms from the long-term security plan is a deadly mistake.

Since the declared end of major combat operations in May 2003, an average of one American has died every day in Iraq, and more than one-third of these soldiers have been killed by small arms — revolvers, rifles, pistols and the like. Thousands more have been injured and some have been unable to complete their duties because of the level of violence and insecurity fueled by small arms. Moreover, uncounted Iraqi civilians have been killed, wounded, threatened or terrorized by small arms.

While U.S. policymakers were consumed with finding weapons of mass destruction, mission planners largely ignored the threat of conventional weapons. Reports estimate that Iraq has perhaps the fourth-largest supply of conventional arms in the world. An embedded reporter in Iraq said military sources told him this included "3 million tons of bombs and bullets, millions of AK-47s and other rifles, rocket launchers and mortar tubes, and thousands of more sophisticated arms like ground-to-air missiles." The 2004 edition of the Small Arms Survey estimates that at least 7 million to 8 million small arms have fallen into the hands of Iraqi civilians since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

One of the additional challenges in dealing with small arms and light weapons in Iraq is the 2003 U.S. policy that allows Iraqi males to keep one weapon. Most have chosen to keep an AK-47 for their personal security, but these arms often find their way out of homes and make their way to the black market or are used for crime and violence.

To address these myriad problems, the U.S. in mid-May undertook an eight-day gun buyback program in Iraq offering amnesty and cash in return for weapons — for instance, $125 for an AK-47. It distributed about $350,000 a day to individuals turning in weapons, from ammunition to surface-to-air missiles.

The effectiveness of this type of program, however, is questionable. First, Iraqis are not being required to turn in all their weapons. Second, many are buying weapons on the black market and turning them in to the Americans for a profit. There are even credible reports of Iraqis turning in older weapons in order to buy newer models on the street. And in some places, such as Karbala, U.S. troops ran out of money. The buyback was a symbolic victory, for some weapons were removed from circulation. But it was an ad hoc and short-term program; it did little to increase overall safety and security, nor did it stymie the black market. Moreover, providing the equivalent of a month's salary or in some cases a year's wages to someone who has illegally possessed weaponry no doubt fueled resentment and jealousy and created targets for criminals.

Iraqis would benefit more from community-based weapon-collection programs and symbolic destruction celebrations. Rather than an individual receiving cash for each weapon turned in, neighborhoods could receive services that benefit the entire group — job training or the building of a post office or soccer field. With good incentives, such programs have worked in other nations. In all cases, the United States must destroy weapons quickly, preferably in a public demonstration, and securely stockpile those that have yet to be destroyed.

On June 22, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee that the United States should "expect more violence, not less, in the immediate weeks ahead." Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told the same committee that the U.S. had "underestimated" the threat from insurgents in Iraq, and that the U.S. military could keep "a significant number" of U.S. troops in Iraq for "years to come." Developing a coherent, long-term strategy for small arms is not only prudent, it is lifesaving.

[reprinted with the permission of The Los Angeles Times]

Author(s): Rachel Stohl