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Thursday, June 17, 2004

The biggest blunder of the Iraq war


Our gift to Iraq


How Much Is That Uzi in the Window?
By EVAN WRIGHT

Published: June 17, 2004

LOS ANGELES

To the American troops in Iraq being subjected to a daily rain of fire from roadside bombs, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, it often seems that the insurgents have limitless stocks of munitions. In fact, in the time I spent embedded with a platoon there, I heard more than one marine joke that the insurgents must have more bullets to spare than the Americans.

But it's no joke: some military officials told me that the Iraqis have so many weapons that they are suspected of exporting them over the Syrian border. And for this bounty, they can thank the Pentagon. Of all the blunders American military leaders have made in Iraq, one of the least talked about is how they succeeded in arming the insurgents.

By the time of the coalition invasion, Iraq had one of the largest conventional arms stockpiles in the world. According to one American military estimate, this included three million tons of bombs and bullets; millions of AK-47's and other rifles, rocket launchers and mortar tubes; and thousands of more sophisticated arms like ground-to-air missiles. Much of the arsenal was stored in vast warehouse complexes, some of which occupied several square miles. As war approached, Iraqi commanders ordered these mountains of munitions to be dispersed across the country in thousands of small caches.

The marines I was embedded with — a forward reconnaissance unit at the front of the initial invasion — were stunned by the sheer amounts of weaponry they saw as we raced across some 400 miles to Baghdad. Along much of the route, Iraqi forces had dug holes every couple of hundred yards in which they'd piled grenades, mortars and other munitions. Village schools, health clinics and other government buildings had been turned into ammunition dumps. New rifles, sometimes still sealed in plastic bags, littered the roadsides like trash along a blighted American highway.

But under orders to reach Baghdad as quickly as possible, the marines rarely had a chance to remove, destroy or even mark the stockpiles. In one village, combat engineers (led by local children whom they had bribed with bags of Skittles candies) discovered an underground bunker crammed with dozens of sophisticated air-to-ground missiles. Yet higher-ups in the division insisted that there was no time to destroy them. The marines moved on, leaving the missiles unguarded.

The job of removing ordnance was complicated by the fact that many of the combat engineers in the invasion were not adequately trained for the task. Munitions are not easy to destroy. Bullets, bombs and rockets are designed to be shock-resistant. As the combat engineers often discovered, blowing up a stack of ammunition just scattered it, unexploded, in all directions.

Ordnance disposal is best carried out by specialized technicians; the entire First Marine Expeditionary Force (which was responsible for roughly half the invasion) had the services of only about 200. As one of those overworked technicians told me the day we reached Baghdad, it would have taken the experts attached to the First Division a year just to clear the munitions they discovered in the city's eastern suburbs.

And within 24 hours of the fall of the capital, the dangers posed by all those unchecked arms became obvious. The marines I was with occupied a warehouse in the Shiite slum now called Sadr City, which quickly became the center of armed insurgence in Baghdad. The moment it got dark, tracer fire lit up the sky, as gun battles erupted across the city.


The Iraqi resistance is the best armed in history. With access to modern weapons which should have been blown in place. Instead, every Iraqi guerrilla unit can go into battle armed equally to the US troops. They may not have the body armor, but they have small arms, mortars and rocket launchers. Which is enough, combined with military training, to give them an even chance of resisting the US. This is amazing. Amazing. Americans are dying because of this.

The Iraqi resistance has years of weapons at their disposal. Billions of rounds of ammo, enough explosives to make thousands of car bombs. At no point did the US command act like this was the obvious danger that it was. Now, Americans are dead because of it. Does anyone think Sadr would be as prominent as he is if he couldn't get the AK's which were lying around? The RPG's which school kids can pick up from dumps. Even today, they can still walk inm grab ammo and walk away without the US doing much to stop them.

posted by Steve @ 11:26:00 AM

11:26:00 AM

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