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Guerrillas in no danger of running out of arms
WASHINGTON — Iraqi guerrillas have an abundant supply of small arms and explosives that could allow them to maintain their pace of attacks indefinitely, Pentagon and U.S. Central Command intelligence analysts have concluded.

The guerrillas' shoot-and-scoot tactics use up relatively little ammunition while inflicting serious casualties and even deeper psychological damage.

At least 107 U.S. troops have died in guerrilla attacks and other hostile action in Iraq since May 1. And although Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has argued that the attacks are relatively few considering the size of the country, he acknowledges they have succeeded in intimidating Iraqis who might otherwise support the coalition.

Iraq's armed forces disbanded and melted into the countryside in late April during the final stages of the U.S.-led effort to topple Saddam Hussein's regime by force. The Iraqi soldiers took their weapons home with them. Coalition forces took note of an ominous sign at the end of the fighting: hundreds of disabled Iraqi military vehicles along roads and in fields, stripped of any ammunition.

The discovery of thousands of arms caches — not only at military bases, but also in schools, mosques, hospitals and homes — indicates to U.S. commanders that there remain thousands more undiscovered caches accessible to guerrillas.

Coalition commanders have various estimates for how much is stored in those caches. Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez cited an estimate of 650,000 tons, an enormous figure equal to about a third of the U.S. military's vast ammunition stockpile. Brig. Gen. Robert Davis, the officer in charge of a program to collect and destroy Iraqi weapons stocks, said the figure could be closer to 1 million tons.

Dan Coberly, spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing destruction of seized Iraqi arms, said in an interview, "No one has a firm number for the total amount" of small arms in Iraq.

"We don't have any notion at this point where all of these sites are," Sanchez told reporters in Baghdad last week. "We're still finding ammunition in backyards. Every day we're finding it."

Central Command, the military headquarters responsible for U.S. operations in Iraq, has been under pressure from Capitol Hill to explain why it has not secured all of the conventional weapons caches found since major combat was declared over May 1.

"There are so many different places where the forces on the ground have discovered weapons caches, and to dedicate soldiers to guard them before they are confiscated or destroyed is simply impossible," said a Central Command spokesman, Sgt. Danny Martin.

The problem facing U.S. and allied soldiers stems not from weapons snatched by guerrillas from under the noses of coalition guards but rather from weapons the guerrillas already had when the main fighting ended six months ago.

Much of what coalition forces do in Iraq revolves around small arms — either looking for them, securing them or dodging them.

Two U.S. intelligence officials, one civilian, the other military, said there is simply no way to keep weapons out of the hands of guerrillas. Instead, the focus is turning to finding technologies that can be used to detect mines, booby traps and roadside bombs before they inflict casualties on coalition patrols.

The combination of readily available small arms and explosives with tactics that require relatively little use of ammunition indicates that Iraqi forces will be able to sustain their ambush-style attacks indefinitely, these two intelligence officials said.

Rumsfeld has argued that the news media are overplaying the significance of the attacks and that most of Iraq is stable and calm. In a speech Oct. 10 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., Rumsfeld said that of 1,700 coalition patrols per day, only about one-tenth of 1% encounter violence.

That would be fewer than two attacks per day. In fact, at that time, there were about 20-25 attacks per day, or a little more than 1% of the patrols.

Rumsfeld acknowledges that the guerrilla strikes have had an impact. In the Reagan Library speech, he was asked what was the biggest surprise so far in the Iraq campaign. He answered that it was the ability of the guerrillas "to terrorize and frighten the rest of the Iraqi people and cause them not to come over to the other side."

A major problem for the coalition stems from the makeup of the small arms store. Those arms include not only automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades but also high explosives that can be fashioned into the remote-controlled roadside bombs used so effectively against U.S. military convoys. Guerrillas have also increased their use of mortar attacks. And coalition commanders are particularly concerned about man-portable surface-to-air missiles that threaten commercial and military aircraft.

Iraq expert Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies likened the small arms problem to controlling the flow of illegal drugs or of money to terrorists: "You have to do what you can, but nothing that is practical will ever succeed ... unless you can eliminate demand and create a climate where society rejects such behavior."

 
 
 
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