BAGHDAD, Iraq – A weapons-for-cash program designed to disarm Shiite militiamen who have been fighting American troops is unlikely to weaken the movement of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search) in his Baghdad stronghold — but is proving to be an economic bonanza for residents.
Senior aides of al-Sadr and local commanders of his Mahdi Army (search) militia in Sadr City — home to up to 2.5 million people — said the five-day program that began Monday as part of a truce did not mean gunmen would be hard pressed to procure arms if they have to.
"We have taken our precautions," sheik Mussa al-Sari, a local militia commander, said. "Our plan is to maintain our strength."
Furthermore, sources close to the militia in Sadr City said some of the gunmen were handing over weapons that are not properly functioning or were considered surplus. In some cases they threw in one or two pieces in pristine condition to make the process look genuine.
Cash could be used to buy new weapons, the sources said on condition of anonymity. The process also doesn't require those surrendering weapons to prove membership of the Mahdi Army, something that has meant that ordinary Iraqis were able to trade guns for cash.
On Tuesday, a woman in a black cloak, or abaya, turned in what looked like an antique rifle.
"It's extremely unlikely that al-Sadr's fighters will surrender all their medium and heavy weapons and, given the widespread availability of military equipment in Iraq, they will be able to easily replace anything they give up, especially as they are receiving money in exchange for weapons," said Jeremy Binnie, Middle East editor for Jane's Sentinel Security Assessments in London. "The Mahdi Army's disarmament is something of a mirage."
Even if the Mahdi Army doesn't genuinely disarm, a quiet Sadr City would be a much needed respite for U.S. and Iraqi forces, allowing them to shift resources to dealing with a 17-month-old Sunni insurgency in Baghdad and areas to the north and west ahead of a key January election.
The vote's credibility depends on a respectable turnout and the ability of Iraqis to vote anywhere across the nation — objectives which are security-related.
However, with arms still in the hands of al-Sadr's followers in Sadr City, fighting could resume anytime. Small bands of militiamen also exist in other Shiite districts of Baghdad and in cities and towns across central and southern Iraq where al-Sadr enjoys considerable sympathy.
The Sadr City truce, reached last week between Iraq's interim government and tribal leaders from the district, doesn't provide for the disbanding of the Mahdi Army. It obliges authorities, in return for disarming, to release Sadrist activists in detention unless they are facing criminal charges, halt the pursuit of al-Sadr supporters and restrict security house sweeps.
It's the second time in less than two months that the al-Sadr followers and the government reach a truce that allows the 31-year-old cleric to keep his militia. In late August, al-Sadr's gunmen walked away with their weapons intact from a holy shrine in the city of Najaf south of Baghdad after three weeks of fierce fighting. The militiamen are believed to have moved to Sadr City.
In April, a similar agreement halted the first of al-Sadr's two revolts so far this year, but the militiamen did not leave Najaf as agreed and instead hid in the city's large cemetery and held sway over the holy city until clashes erupted in August.
Sheik Ali Smeisem, al-Sadr's top political aide in Baghdad, said the movement, whose origins are rooted in the 1990s when al-Sadr's late father led a religious campaign against Saddam, still planned to enter mainstream politics ahead of the January vote, but had no intention of disbanding the Mahdi Army as demanded by Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search) and the U.S. military.
"The Mahdi Army was never officially structured. It's a popular army and it can make arrangements to rearm itself," he told The Associated Press.
The prices on offer for the weapons in Sadr City are tempting in a country with unemployment thought to be 50 percent. They range from one dollar for a single bullet, $150 for an assault rifle, $500 for a rocket propelled grenade launcher and $1,000 for a heavy machine-gun.
Iraqis, particularly those of tribal or rural background, have traditionally kept firearms at home, mostly pistols and assault rifles. But in the days and weeks of lawlessness that followed the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime last year, Iraqis looted arms depots across the nation.
In today's Iraq, mortars, rocket launchers, machine-guns, land mines and artillery shells are for sale.
"We know that a lot more weapons are out there (in Sadr City) and they need to come in," said Lt. Col. James E. Hutton, chief spokesman for the 1st Cavalry Division, the unit in charge of security in Baghdad. "There must be a visible and obvious effort of good faith on their part to make this happen. Without that, it won't work."