Tuesday, November 4, 2003

BAGHDAD — Groups of Iraqis can be seen any day sitting on iron chairs around the graves at a large cemetery on the outskirts of the Iraqi capital, but not all of them are visiting their ancestors.

During three two-hour shifts each day, the cemetery serves as an open-air arms bazaar where, virtually under the noses of coalition officials, Iraqis trade in the sorts of deadly weapons that are being used to attack U.S. forces.

One U.S. soldier was killed and another wounded in the latest such attack yesterday, when a homemade bomb exploded near the northern Iraqi town of Tikrit, the U.S. military said.

U.S. forces meanwhile searched through barns and haystacks near Fallujah, about 30 miles west of Baghdad, seeking shoulder-fired missiles like the one that brought down a Chinook helicopter Sunday, killing 16 soldiers.

A former Iraqi military officer last week illustrated the ease with which such weapons are bought and sold in Iraq by negotiating the purchase of two rocket-propelled grenade launchers at the Baghdad cemetery.

The launchers were subsequently handed over to an American officer at the Al-Saliyha police station in downtown Baghdad, who acknowledged that the country is awash with weaponry left over from Saddam Hussein’s vast arsenal.

“What you’ve done is help reduce the death threats we face daily,” the appreciative officer said before writing out a receipt for the weapons. “You’ve taken some rocket launchers off the street, but we know there are so many more.”

The former army officer who negotiated the purchase agreed to be identified only as Gen. Alameen.

He said he ordered the weapons in the late afternoon from Brahim Khalil, a former sergeant in the disbanded Iraqi army, who was a mine-laying specialist. But, he said, most of the arms-sellers at the graveyard are ages 15 to 20 and work for more-senior dealers.

The next day, the general waited at the cemetery for 15 minutes before a young boy arrived and led him to another part of the graveyard where senior Ba’athist officials are buried.

There the boy offered five RPG launchers and seven rockets for sale. The general chose two launchers, both Russian-made, costing a total of $220. “If you need more, just let me know,” he quoted the seller as saying.

Also on offer were hand grenades with timing devices.

Rockets to go with the RPG launcher can be bought for $20 to $30, the general said, though in Mahmudiyah, south of Baghdad, there is a market where huge numbers of rockets are available at just $10 to $15 each. Even lower prices are available for purchases of 50 rockets or more.

One of the RPG launchers purchased by Gen. Alameen had a white stamp with the head of Saddam indicating it had belonged to the hard-line Saddam Fedayeen guerrilla forces, who used RPGs extensively against U.S. and British troops during the spring war.

An RPG is thought to have been used a week ago to shoot down an American Black Hawk helicopter, which caught fire after an emergency landing near Tikrit. A more sophisticated SA-7 Grail shoulder-fired missile was blamed for the weekend crash of a Chinook helicopter near Fallujah.

“An ordinary man can buy weapons in around 10 days, just by getting sent to the right dealer by word of mouth,” said Gen. Alameen. “But for former army people it’s easy. I could buy 100 RPG launchers and their rockets if I had the ready cash.”

The general made a separate weapons purchase for his own use of a Kalashnikov automatic rifle for $150 dollars, a 9mm Iraqi-made pistol for $300 and several magazines.

“I need these to defend myself from ‘Ali Baba’ robbers and to protect my kids when I take them to school. Kidnappings and robberies are common,” he said.

Tucking the weapons into special compartments inside his car, the officer said authorities “will never find them even if they use long-handled mirrors to search under the car. A U.S. checkpoint stopped me when I came back from buying the RPG launchers, and they found nothing.”

While seeking authorities to whom he could surrender the launchers, the general parked opposite the Al Rasheed Hotel, which housed numerous top coalition and Iraqi officials until it was hit by a rocket attack last month.

“From this distance, around 80 yards, you can easily hit any window,” Gen. Alameen noted.

He also parked in front of Assassin’s Gate, the arched entrance to the grounds of the ‘Four-Headed Saddam’ Palace where coalition chief L. Paul Bremer’s staff is based. Guards at the gate directed the car to a conference center opposite the Al Rasheed.

In the end, a U.S. intelligence officer suggested that launchers be handed in at the nearby Al-Saliyha police station.

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