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Weapons By the Barrel

The Iraqi army stockpiled vast caches only to abandon them as it fled, leaving the U.S. with a storage problem that's still growing.

April 16, 2003|Geoffrey Mohan and David Zucchino | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — The call came in from Cyclone Company on Tuesday morning. They had found the mother lode.

"That's the exact word they used -- 'mother lode,' " said 1st Lt. Matt Miletich, herding a group of engineers toward their vehicles for yet another weapons cache run.

They were directed to the Iraqi weapons inside a compound of eight concrete warehouses on the bank of the Tigris River in central Baghdad. The weapons had been stacked, dumped or tossed by Iraqis into tangled piles of rifles, mortars, grenades, pistols, rockets, land mines and hundreds of heavy boxes of ammunition.

When Miletich and his engineers saw the magnitude of the cache, their shoulders sank. They figured it would take at least three days to load it all onto 10-ton trucks and haul it back to the engineers' base camp near the presidential palace.

For the last five days, the men of Beast Company, 10th Engineer Battalion, have been buckling under the strain of collecting the tons of weapons and ammunition abandoned by Republican Guard units that fled the capital under attack. So many hidden weapons have been uncovered that Sgt. 1st Class James Ripley has not had time to add up the columns of numbers he scribbles on notebook paper as each cache is counted off.

These engineers are the all-purpose unit for the Army's 4th Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment. In combat, they lay bridges, clear mines and blow up abandoned enemy bunkers. Now, with most of the fighting over, they have been burying Iraqi dead. But their chief postwar task is weapons collection, and only now are they discovering what a well-armed enemy they had defeated.

From just their battalion's security area around the palace complex, the engineers have filled nine 100-foot-deep, 30-foot-tall truck storage bays with weapons and ammunition. They have come from bunkers, warehouses and private homes.

"Why does any country need more guns than people?" one engineer asked as the men passed new AK-47 automatic rifles hand to hand and into a truck bed, their hands orange with slick packing grease.

Some officers speculated that the weapons were stored in preparation for a defense of the palace grounds and adjoining military complexes that never materialized.

The caches range from the mundane to the esoteric. There are machine-gun rounds, shotgun shells, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades in bays one through four. In bay six, there is a gold-plated, German-made MP-5 machine gun with silencer and gold-plated ammunition magazines, clearly a gift, found in a mansion in the palace complex.

"It's never been fired," Miletich said. Engineers posed with the weapon Tuesday, grinning for souvenir photographs.

Also in bay six, the engineers stacked 23 briefcase guns right out of a James Bond movie. Each conceals an MP-5, its barrel pointed out a tiny hole in the side. The briefcase handle is actually a trigger that can fire the gun on single-shot or burst.

"Why anybody would need a weapon like that, I can't say," said Sgt. Matt Novak, a supply sergeant attached to the engineer company.

Also recovered was a seemingly innocuous air-gun pistol that's equipped to fire deadly cyanide pellets from a carbon-dioxide canister. "It shoots and explodes in midair and kills anyone near it," Miletich said. U.S. military weapons inspectors confiscated the cyanide pellets from a carrying case that had been found in a house, he said.

A favorite of American troops is a .25-caliber Targa pistol small enough to fit inside a man's palm. There are hundreds of them, packed in tiny boxes.

The recovered weapons, many of them still in shipping cases and wrapped in plastic, will be held until a new government and army are ready to receive them, Miletich said. Hundreds of new Beretta pistols, many with silencers and still in boxes containing owner's instructions, will be handed over to a new police force, along with thousands of other handguns.

Many of the cases of weapons still bear the labels betraying their origins, including dozens of ammunition boxes bearing the words: "GHQ Jordan Armed Forces, Dir. Of Plng & Org, Amman, Jordan," and shotgun shells whose labels read "Dynamit Nobel -- Made in Germany." Ammunition boxes from France were marked "Munitions du Surete."

There was U.S.-made Winchester Super X .357 magnum ammunition and Sig Sauer P-220 pistols, grenades from France, and other weapons or ammunition from Russia, Syria, Lebanon, Brazil and the former Yugoslavia.

Although many of the weapons are new, they appeared to have been in storage for many years. It is impossible to determine whether any of the materiel was sold to Iraq before or after United Nations sanctions were imposed in 1991.

At the cache discovered Tuesday, a couple of engineers clowned around with a .357 Combat Magnum found inside: "Go ahead, punk," they muttered. "Make my day."

Among the weapons were old bolt-action rifles, including one described by an engineer as a Winchester Model 70 carbine.

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