Mehdi army surrenders its heavy weapons

Posted in Iraq | 12-Oct-04 | Author: Kim Sengupta| Source: The Independent

Members of the Mehdi Army fill a sack with weapons and mortar shells handed in by fighters.

The battered pick-up truck was normally used for ferrying vegetables to market. But in Sadr City yesterday it arrived to collect a very different load - mortar shells, grenade launchers and machine-gun rounds.

What was missing, however, was another kind of "carrot", the promise made to Shia militiamen by the US and Iraq's interim government that they would be paid in cash for surrendering their arms. The officials with the money failed to turn up, so hastily written IOUs were being handed out to deeply unimpressed fighters. Nevertheless, the Mehdi Army had begun to give up some weapons, albeit in a trickle rather than a flood. It was hailed as a significant first step in bringing the 10,000-strong militia and its leader, Muqtada Sadr, into Iraq's political process.

After pounding this vast Shia slum, on the outskirts of Baghdad, for the past two weeks, the US and the interim Iraqi government obtained agreement to this partial disarmament with a concessions and incentives.

Many of Sadr's detained followersare being freed, the Americans have agreed to stop their attacks and stay outside Sadr City, and the interim government has announced a renovation project for the area.

Sadr, the charismatic radical Shia leader viewed recently by the US military as public enemy number one in Iraq, is being urged to switch his attention to politics. He has agreed and even held talks with Kurdish and Sunni parties to explore forming a coalition for the projected elections in January.

Iraq's interim Vice-President, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, welcomed the weapons handover as a "good and positive initiative". But it is not the first time the US and its Iraqi allies have tried to reach a settlement with Sadr. A deal was announced after fighting in the Shia holy city of Najaf in August under which the militia was allowed to march away without giving up weapons. This did not end clashes in Sadr City.

Under the new plan, the militia has five days to hand over medium and heavy weapons at rates ranging from $5 (£2.70) for a hand grenade to $1,000 for a heavy-calibre machine gun. At al-Nasr police station, Major Kadhim Salman said: "We are having to issue receipts instead. I don't know what has happened with the men who were bringing the money". Walid, an elderly militiaman, cackled: "Perhaps, they got robbed. The Ali-Babas knew all you police and army would be here, so they took their pick."

Abdul al-Nawaf, 26, brought out machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers from his white sedan. "We have plenty more. But we are waiting to see whether the money will be really paid or not," he said.

Elsewhere, two US soldiers were killed and five wounded in a rocket attack in southern Baghdad, and a suicide car bomber targeting a US military convoy in Mosul killed two civilians and 18 people.

• An Islamic militant group said it had beheaded a Turkish contractor and his Iraqi translator for working with US forces in Iraq, al-Jazeera television reported yesterday.