US troops will be given orders to arrest any Iraqis who carry or sell guns, it was announced today. The move is an attempt to end the chaos caused by gangs of looters and bandits.
Tens of thousands of firearms, ranging from pistols and revolvers to Kalashnikov assault rifles, were distributed by Saddam Hussein's government to its supporters in the final days of the war.
Many ended up being sold on the black market, while thousands more were looted from abandoned armouries in the aftermath of the regime's collapse. Weapons are being used in daily carjackings and armed robberies.
The commander of US ground forces, Lieutenant General David McKiernan, today said that the new administrators of Iraq will soon establish laws aimed at restoring law and order on the streets.
"We'll focus our effort on eliminating so-called gun markets, and will arrest anyone who possesses or sells guns," he said in an announcement, which was read in Arabic on the coalition-run Voice of New Iraq radio station.
"Coalition forces will hunt down these people who, through their irresponsible acts, are threatening the lives of every man, woman and child," the statement said.
Lt Gen McKiernan urged citizens to report anyone possessing a weapon to coalition forces.
The announcement follows a US pledge to crack down on the looting and violence that has raged through Iraq's cities in the wake of Saddam's fall.
In Baghdad, Major General Buford Blount, commander of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, said that people arrested for looting in the Iraqi capital are being held for around three weeks. Previously, they had been held for two days.
He said that a total of 600 people were currently being detained at a holding facility at Baghdad international airport. Those who committed a crime with the aid of a weapon would be detained until Iraq's judicial authorities are fully operational and able to take charge of them, he said.
Maj Gen Blount told the Associated Press that US troops were "aggressively targeting" looters, but denied reports that they had been issued with a shoot to kill policy.
Meanwhile, there were signs of a return to normality in southern Iraq as Umm Qasr became the first town to be returned to local, civilian control since US-led forces occupied the country.
British troops, who took the strategic port almost two months ago, have handed control to a 12-member temporary town council, pending elections for a permanent council next week.
The 200-strong contingent of soldiers will leave Umm Qasr on Saturday, with a small force staying behind as a security measure. Lieutenant Colonel Peter Jones, the commander of 23 Pioneer Regiment and former military governor of Umm Qasr, was at the formal ceremony to hand rule to a council of 12 Iraqis.
"The people of Umm Qasr are now in charge of their own destiny for the first time in 35 years or longer," he told Reuters.
Lt Col Jones said that British forces had restored power, water and basic services to make Umm Qasr a "working" town.
The local economy had yet to recover, he said, but the port would provide employment and income and help the town to recover from the war, he said.
The current members of the council running the town, which has a population of 45,000 and is close to the Kuwait border, are volunteers, including local professionals and clerics.
Town councils have been set up in several places in Iraq, but Umm Qasr is the first town in which a council has taken control from US or British troops.
The step is also significant because the port is southern and central Iraq's main entrance for food, aid and trade, as well as an exit point for oil.
However, many locals complain that order has not been fully restored, and say that drinking water is scarce. Protests caused the interim council to resign earlier this month, but most of its members later returned.
The difficulties faced by the British in setting up a local government in Umm Qasr illustrate the problems ahead as US and British forces try to return power to Iraqis.
"We are doing what we can, but I do not have a magic wand," Najim Abed Mahdi, a supervisor of English teaching who was appointed chairman of the interim town council, said.
"This is the first attempt for us to run our town by ourselves. We are ready to rebuild our town, and we are ready to rebuild our country," he told Reuters.www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,2763,956711,00.htmlE-mail this article