- The Washington Times - Monday, October 11, 2004

BAGHDAD — Shi’ite fighters in tracksuits and sneakers unloaded cars full of machine guns, mortars and land mines yesterday as a five-day disarmament program kicked off in Baghdad’s Sadr City district — a sign of progress in the center of Shi’ite resistance in Iraq.

A lasting peace in the sprawling slum would allow U.S. and Iraqi forces to focus on the mounting Sunni insurgency. Underscoring the threat, two American soldiers were killed in a rocket attack in southern Baghdad, and a third U.S. soldier died when a suicide driver exploded a car bomb in front of a U.S. convoy in the northern city of Mosul.

Followers of radical Shi’ite cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr promised the government last weekend they would hand over medium and heavy weapons for cash in a deal considered an important step toward ending weeks of fighting with U.S. and Iraqi forces in Sadr City. Iraqi police and national guardsmen will then assume security responsibility for the district, which is home to more than 2 million people.

In return, the government has pledged to start releasing Sheik al-Sadr’s followers who have not committed crimes, suspend raids and rebuild the war-ravaged slum.

Members of Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi’s Army started showing up at three designated police stations yesterday morning, carting bags full of guns and explosives — even TNT paste. Many of the weapons appeared old and rusted, but government officials expressed satisfaction with the first day’s haul.

“Sadr City residents were very responsive, and the process went without any incidents,” Interior Ministry spokesman Col. Adnan Abdul-Rahman said. “We hope this will be completed in a comprehensive manner so that reconstruction can start in the city.”

Security was tight, with numerous checkpoints set up along the way and Iraqi troops deployed on rooftops. U.S. soldiers also watched from a distance.

Militia fighters started arriving in larger numbers once officials turned up with cash to pay them. Rates ranged from $5 for a hand grenade to $1,000 for a heavy-caliber machine gun.

“We are fed up with fighting,” said Hassan Kadhim, 31, as he unloaded guns and mortar rounds from a pickup truck. He hoped to use the money to start a business.

U.S. and Iraqi authorities hope the weapons surrender will be the first step toward restoring peace in Sadr City.

“Until that process is completed, and until the Iraqi government itself is satisfied, it is way too early to characterize it as a success,” said Lt. Col. James Hutton, spokesman for the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry Division.

If disarmament is successful in Sadr City, officials hope to replicate the process in other insurgent enclaves so they can curb resistance before nationwide elections in January.

Both sides, however, view each other with suspicion. Many militia fighters and even some national guard members covered their faces during the handover, apparently in fear of being targeted.

There have been several truces before with Sheik al-Sadr — none of which lasted more than 40 days. A deal brokered after heavy fighting in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf in August allowed his militia to walk away with its weapons. Soon afterward, clashes broke out again in Sadr City.

Elsewhere, two U.S. soldiers were killed and five wounded in a rocket attack yesterday in southern Baghdad, the military said.

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