U.S. Forces Begin Disarmament Program in Kirkuk

By Steve Vogel

KIRKUK, Iraq, April 15 -- This northern city, near the Kurdish-controlled zone, is like an enormous armory. Antiaircraft guns dot fields like billboards and artillery pieces are parked in front of homes. Since U.S. troops occupied the city last Thursday, random gunfire and explosions have routinely sounded from every direction.

Now the American have started taking away the guns. Armored patrols are hunting down heavy weaponry around the city. Random checkpoints were set up today to search vehicles for guns. Army engineers are overwhelmed by the amount of confiscated weaponry they have been instructed to destroy.

The U.S. effort is not yet a full-scale disarmament program. "It's hit and miss," said Col. William Mayville, commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, who acknowledged that a great deal of weaponry has already been spirited away by Kurdish militia. "The Kurds are going to be armed to the teeth. The good news is they probably won't be able to maintain the weapons."

While U.S. troops are authorized to use deadly force if they feel threatened, they are relying on intimidation and overwhelming force, as well as the cooperation of the Kurdish militia. The arrival of M1A1 tanks and M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles from the 1st Infantry Division has made the task easier.

In addition to the conventional weapons, several locations have been found in and around the airfield that are suspected to be chemical weapons sites. A chemical reconnaissance detachment was called to inspect a farm southwest of Kirkuk owned by Gen. Ali Hassan Majeed, known as "Chemical Ali" for his role in orchestrating a chemical attack on Iraqi Kurds.

Soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry found missiles and oil drums holding unidentified liquids at the site.

Weapons turn up everywhere, even when soldiers aren't looking. At the Kirkuk airfield where U.S. forces are based, soldiers grew curious about a stream of people who kept entering and exiting a nearby compound. Investigating further, the soldiers found a huge cache of ammunition. Much of it had already been looted, but thousands of rounds of mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, mines and cases of small-arms munitions remained.

Soldiers say the number of weapons visible on the street has diminished over the past week. "Everybody on every corner had an AK-47 when we first got to town," Sgt. 1st Class LaMont Caldwell, a platoon sergeant.

On an armored patrol Monday afternoon, a platoon of M-113 armored personnel carriers accompanied by a Bradley Fighting Vehicle from the 1st Infantry spotted an twin-barreled anti-aircraft gun sitting in a lot near a city bridge.

Iraqi civil defense officers at the scene said the weapon belonged to Kurdish militia. "Let them know it has to be out of the city," said Lt. Chris Kenny, marking the spot with his global positioning satellite receiver. "If we come back, it should be gone.

On the northern outskirts of town, the soldiers spotted two more anti-aircraft guns sitting in a truck bed. Chickens darted out of the path of an armored personnel carrier as it clanked down a dusty road toward the truck. Children handed out roses to dismounted soldiers approaching the guns. Residents said the guns had been brought to the site by Kurdish militia and abandoned. A woman brought out candy for the soldiers to snack on as they went about disabling the guns.

Further down the road, the patrol came across three abandoned Iraqi T-55 tanks in dug-in positions. An Abrams tank was called to the scene.

Sgt. 1st Class Stephen Wright, a veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, lobbied to destroy the T-55s on the spot with U.S. tank rounds. Instead, soldiers unloaded dozens of 115 mm shells from the T-55s and left two of the tanks behind for destruction by engineers. The Abrams towed the third Iraqi tank to a remote field to shoot and destroy later.

" We don't want to fight it twice," said Wright. "Actually, that would be a third time."