Iraq Awash in Military Weapons ; an Attack on a US Convoy Sunday Highlights Concern over Iraq's 50 Unsecured Arms Depots

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A roadside attack on US military convoy Sunday in Fallujah, Iraq left an American armored car and munitions truck burning wrecks. No one was reported killed, but some Iraqis nearby were cheering.

The Fallujah attack typifies one of an emerging series of threats apparent since September due to the wide availability of guns and military ordnance here. The result has been a steady supply of explosives to use against coalition soldiers, more Iraqi vigilante justice, and a rise in local militia groups.

One coalition official says that up to 50 major weapons sites across Iraq with bombs, ammunition, and rifles in them are improperly secured and have probably served as a source for the home- made bombs - improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in military parlance - that have become the single biggest security threat to the coalition.

New militias are also being spawned across the country and are increasingly coming into conflict either with the coalition or with other Iraqis.

The most visible militias in recent weeks have been ones aligned to extremist Shiite clerics. Shiite Muslims make up about 60 percent of Iraq's people, and were literally second-class citizens in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. At least seven coalition soldiers - 5 of them Americans - have been killed in clashes with these militias this month.

The availability of weapons to ordinary Iraqis, not just militias, is also a concern. In May, Paul Bremer, the top coalition official here, decided to allow Iraqis to keep AK-47s, with the stipulation that they confine them to their home. But that provision has proven almost impossible to enforce, and gun-toting toughs are now a regular feature on the streets of most of Iraq's cities.

"In my opinion, we'd be a lot better off if we didn't let people keep AK-47s in their homes,'' says Gen. Kadhem Abdul Khalik, the chief of police for Al-Risafa district, which encompasses about half of Baghdad. "Under the old regime, there were a lot fewer guns in private hands, and that made our job easier and safer."

Now, automatic weapons are heard throughout the evening in Baghdad. Usually there aren't casualties - it's just macho posturing, or someone letting off a few rounds to play a joke on a friend - but the gunplay ups the ante in an already tense environment.

The rationale behind the coalition's gun policy was helping citizens stand up to the crime wave that swept Baghdad and other cities in the chaos that followed the collapse of Hussein's regime, with well-armed gangs kidnapping wealthy citizens, stealing antiquities, and conducting car-jackings. With so many regime arsenals unguarded, it was easy for criminals to arm, and it was felt that tougher restrictions would be unfair to the law-abiding majority.

The coalition believes its policy on guns remains the right one. "There are pretty strict weapons controls... and I think they strike the right balance,'' says coalition spokesman Charles Heatley. For instance, "to take the gun out of your house you need a weapons permit."

There are private militias that have not caused much trouble for the coalition, including the Badr Brigade. This militia, loyal to the cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and his Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, continues to train and consolidate.

Many of the members of the US- appointed Governing Council roll through Baghdad with carloads of gun-toting loyalists, and AK-47 assault rifles remain freely available to anyone with $100 to $200. …