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Few Iraqis turning in weapons

Monday, June 2, 2003

David and Marie Mayberry of Commerce, Mo., maintained their sense of humor with a for-sale sign as their home was flooded by the Mississippi River in 1993. "I'm sick of this," Marie Mayberry said from the front porch of their home on July 10, 1993.

By Sameer N. Yacoub ~ The Associated Press

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqis ordered by the U.S.-led occupation force to begin turning in their weapons showed little sign of compliance Sunday, the first day of a two-week amnesty period designed to make the streets of postwar Iraq safer.

In a land where gun culture runs deep and lawlessness is a serious concern, separating people from their firearms is no easy task -- especially in Baghdad, a city occupied by heavily armed American forces.

"During the Saddam era, few people used to keep weapons in their houses because there was real security, but now you have to protect your family by yourself," said Ali Hassan, a 27-year-old factory worker. He says he won't turn in his Kalashnikov assault rifle until a new Iraqi government is established and security is restored.

While looting and crime have ebbed since American tanks rolled into the Iraqi capital April 9, security remains a major issue across the city -- particularly at night, when gunfire remains common and most streets are deserted soon after sunset.

That's why many Iraqis say they need to remain armed.

Year in prison, $1,000 fine

Hassan has hidden his AK-47 in a place he says no one can find. Not the Iraqi police, not "even the Americans with their high-tech equipment," boasted Hassan, who lives in al-Thawra, a poor neighborhood of Shiite Muslims that was known before the U.S. invasion as Saddam City.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. administration issued an order demanding citizens hand in everything but light weapons, which are permitted for protection in homes and businesses. Anyone who doesn't comply by sunset on June 14 could be sentenced to a year in prison plus a $1,000 fine.

Under the order, only coalition forces, police officers and other uniformed officials under coalition authority are allowed to possess most automatic or heavy weaponry. A few other groups are exempt from certain parts of the order, such as the peshmerga, a Kurdish fighting force that helped the United States during the war.

The guns handed in will either be destroyed or used by the new Iraqi army and police.

But on Sunday, the first day of the gun handover period, few Iraqis seemed to be taking the U.S. order seriously. Barely anyone showed up at Baghdad police stations, the city's main weapons collection points.

Iraq has a long culture of gun ownership. Owning a firearm is a matter of pride and a sign of manhood to many Iraqi men, especially in rural areas where tribalism and traditional values endure.

And weapons are used not just for protection here: The clatter of weapons fire is commonly used to celebrate anything from a birth to a wedding.

By late afternoon, not a single gun had been turned in at the al-Sadar police station in al-Thawra. The commander, Brigadier Ali al-Yassiri, suggested a reward be established as incentive.

"I think many people will come here if this procedure is adopted," al-Yassiri said.

The scene was similar at the Hay al-Aamil police station, where Iraqi policemen posted banners on razor wire outside the station, urging people to hand over any forbidden arms. Nobody showed.

'We lack security'

Advertising, though, would not have convinced Hamid Aboud, a 60-year-old retiree whose elderly female neighbor was murdered by thieves inside her house 10 days ago.

"This decision is a hasty one because we need weapons to defend our houses against looters and criminals," he said. "We lack security."

While Aboud was reading the banners, two men attacked a third person inside the police station -- right in front of astonished Iraqis policemen and U.S. soldiers. The men, it turned out, were having a dispute over rent. Iraqi police arrested one of the attackers, but the other escaped.

"Look at this," Aboud said. "It proves that my opinion is correct."


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