October 16, 2004
DISARMAMENT

A Guns-for-Dollars Swap in a Militant Stronghold Misses Its Target

By RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr.

New York Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Oct. 15 - Kadham Jabar had a simple plan to satisfy his daughter's curiosity about American dollars. It involved a woven white sack filled with two dozen rocket-propelled grenade cartridges.

Mr. Jabar lugged the sack of weapons to a rundown stadium in the Habibiya section of the Sadr City district here on Thursday, the day before the scheduled end of a weapons-for-cash exchange intended to disarm the militiamen loyal to the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr who patrol this sprawling, dusty, trash-strewn neighborhood in northeast Baghdad.

But Friday afternoon, Mr. Jabar was still standing outside, near the Iraqi National Guard troops selecting who would be let into the exchange. He still had the weapons, and no dollars.

Mr. Jabar said the Iraqi troops were demanding to be paid money before they would allow people in.

On television, Iraqi officials had promised a nice return for weapons - $170 for each grenade launcher, for instance. Mr. Jabar was deeply frustrated. "I don't have the money to get let in," he said. His daughter, he said, plays a game with friends that involves fake dollar bills, and "I just wanted her to see a real dollar."

Nearby, among small boys carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles and a man sitting with an anti-aircraft weapon, Khadar Karim Hassan complained that the Iraqi troops were not paying as much for the weapons as had been promised. They had stopped accepting some weapons altogether, he said.

"We are looking for peace, but if they are not going to take the weapons and pay what they said they would," Mr. Hassan said, the people in Sadr City "are going to do bad things with them."

Mr. Hassan and a group of men standing around him also said Iraqi troops were demanding money to be let in to the weapons-exchange area.

When a reporter, a photographer and an interpreter approached the exchange area, behind a long wall in front of the stadium, a masked Iraqi guardsman ordered them to leave. Another guardsman approached, clicking the safety off his automatic weapon.

Outside, in a crowd of gun-wielding Shiites, Iraqi guardsmen approached and said that if the journalists did not leave, they would be arrested. One guardsman - before the question could be put to him - volunteered a denial that bribes required for entry to the exchange. "These people are liars," he said.

There were some hopeful signs at the exchange. A white passenger van pulled up loaded with what appeared to be at least a half dozen large mortars, along with other heavy weapons. A blue jeep stocked with rocket-propelled grenades and other heavy weapons also waited outside. American officials hoped the exchange would yield many larger weapons - particularly mortars of the type used to shell the Green Zone and American bases.

Indeed, an American military spokesman said the "quality" of the weapons turned over had improved markedly on Friday, and that Sadr militia fighters - as opposed to residents - had finally started to take part. Both factors, he said, prompted the Iraqi government to extend the program by two days. But the spokesman, Capt. Brian O'Malley, said the number of weapons had fallen short of expectations and that Mr. Sadr's forces need to turn in far more arms to "prove how committed they really are to disarming."

Several members of the militia interviewed after Friday Prayers in Sadr City insisted that the militia had tried to comply. The militiamen, in their 20's and early 30's, shooed away young boys yelling taunts and insults directed to the United States and instead spoke of their hope for peace with the American military while making it plain that Sadr City has grown weary of raids and searches.

"Yes, we want peace and, God willing, it will happen," said one militia member, who declined to give his name. "All of us give our weapons back, even the bullets."