Leftover ammunition litters Iraq

Saturday, October 25, 2003

AL-MUKASIB, Iraq -- Jutting up from the middle of a vegetable field, the burned out missile is a conspicuous reminder to farmer Abbas Ali that the danger is not over six months after the end of the Iraq war.

The U.S.-led coalition's disposal of munitions -- which has progressed to a rate of about 100 tons a day -- is not fast enough for Ali, 25, who has seen neighbors lose an eye or a leg and even their lives to the deadly leftovers that remain in their homes, yards and fields.

"We've asked them to come clean it up but they do nothing," he said, crossing his arms in anger.

The problem, according to U.S. coalition officials, is that there's too much of it. The country is littered with excess ammunition -- up to 1 million tons of it.

"We're still finding ammunition in back yards every day," acknowledged Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the U.S. commander of troops in Iraq. "It's a significant task, and we continue to work on it every day."

U.S.-led coalition troops have destroyed 500 tons of ammunition since April. Civilian contractors called in to help in the last month have destroyed more than 1,200 tons of it.

Still, even at the current rate, it would take more than a decade to destroy it all.

Between 650,000 to 1 million tons of ammunition remain unaccounted for, scattered all over the country, said Brig. Gen. Robert L. Davis, who is overseeing the cleanup campaign.

Iraq spent years building up its military arsenal, waging three major wars in two decades. Iraqi forces who fled from advancing coalition troops earlier this year left behind arms caches that were hidden away in schools and homes, abandoned in military bases or out in the open.

More than 100 major ammunition dumps, as well as numerous smaller sites, have been identified.

"When someone reports it to a local commander, it gets put on a priority list. Then we work our way down that list. They go out and triage it -- get the worse stuff first," military spokesman Lt. Col. George Krivo said.

For Iraqi citizens, that translates into an all too frustrating wait that can turn deadly.

The rural neighborhood on the western edge of Baghdad is a list of walking wounded, Ali said. Pointing across the highway, he said a neighbor lost an eye trying to clear his property of grenades. Another neighbor had his fingers blown off.

Ali said he's been asking American officials to come clear his land for two months. Finally, two weeks ago, U.S. soldiers came to inspect the missile.

"They came two weeks ago and put a cord around it and a 'Danger' sign, but the kids stole the sign," he said. "They said they would come back but they haven't. We cannot wait."

Down a dusty road lives Adnan Ayad Naif, 35, known in the village for having suffered the worst loss. His wife, Nawar, was killed three months ago when she stepped on a bomb while working in the small field opposite their modest home.

"It was in the late afternoon. She didn't see it because it was under the dirt. I heard the explosion and came running. Her blood was all over my hands," Naif said, two of his three small children hovering nearby.

Afterward, American soldiers cleared part of his land, installing a fluorescent-orange skull and cross bones sign beside it. But the other half has not been touched.

"I asked them, just clean the place. I'm afraid of hearing another boom. It could be my children or my neighbor," Naif said.

The al-Mukasib area is a large swath of farmland that sits next to one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces. Heavily bombed during the war, the area still has unexploded ordnance.

In Fadhil Attiya's field, two rusting Iraqi tanks sit abandoned. Residents say there are three small bombs underneath. During the war, the Iraqi military moved their tanks and weapons into residential areas for safekeeping, hoping to avoid detection by coalition troops. When they abandoned it, they made sure it couldn't be used again.

Attiya's home is pockmarked with shrapnel from what he said were cluster bombs dropped during the war. He also found small grenades on the roof of his home and near the fence bordering his land. He and his brother threw what they found into the river.

"I asked the soldiers to help us but they don't. What else can we do? I know it might explode but I do it for my kids," he said.

As he talked, two neighborhood boys scampered on top of the tank. "Our kids, they know nothing," he said. "They pick it up like toys."

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