U.S. army digs up arms "candy shop"
Thu 11 December, 2003 01:54
By Robin Pomeroy
TIKRIT, Iraq (Reuters) - U.S. forces have arrested three men suspected of heading Iraqi rebel cells in their homes and say they seized a cache of weapons big enough to launch 50 guerrilla attacks.
In the front garden of one of the two houses raided in the northern Iraqi city of Tikrit in the early hours of Thursday, soldiers dug up a hoard of rifles, grenades and explosives that the commanding officer described as "a Fedayeen candy shop".
"This is mission-oriented. This is stuff they dole out," said Lieutenant Colonel Steve Russell of the U.S. Fourth Infantry Division.
"They are not moving weapons here -- this is the head of a snake," he told reporters invited to witness the raid.
"They are probably in charge of two or three cells. This is one of the most unusual varieties of weapons caches we have seen."
U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq have been dogged by attacks, often in the form of improvised bombs against military convoys. They are believed launched by rebels loyal to former President Saddam Hussein, some of whom have been identified as remnants of Saddam's feared Fedayeen militia.
Russell said the three men arrested, two brothers and a brother-in-law all aged about 40, were members of Mohammed's Army, a group he described as a "local terrorist cell" based in what is the main city in Saddam's home region.
"They are connected to the former regime."
The men, woken from their sleep next to their wives and children, pleaded their innocence. But as reporters left the site, soldiers were still finding white plastic sacks stuffed with weapons buried a few inches under the soil.
"You have a smoking gun in your hand," Russell told one of the arrested men who, according to a U.S. army interpreter, had protested: "I just sell wood, I sell shoes. Saddam is my enemy."
As the two men of that house were undergoing initial interrogation outside, their wives and bleary-eyed young children waited in their bedrooms.
Reuters witnessed as a young boy, prompted by an insistent Arabic-speaking soldier, lifted the corner of his mother's mattress to reveal an AK-47 assault rifle.
Troops also discovered an apparently newly-bought wireless doorbell set, which can be used to trigger bombs from a distance.
Russell said the weapons find was significant as U.S. troops rarely discover the "middle-men" who are neither fully-blown arms traffickers nor the foot soldiers who pull the trigger, but are in charge of directing attacks.
He said better intelligence and tip-offs were leading to more effective raids on Iraqi rebels than in recent months.
"We are draining the swamp of the high and the low," he said. "It is starting to get pretty good. It is starting to get as good as it was in July and August.
As the bulk of troops left the house, two U.S. helicopters fired salvos of explosives into a nearby farmer's field, a show of force the U.S. military calls "harassment and interdiction" of local militants.
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