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Iraqis Help US Troops Collect Hidden, Abandoned Missiles - 2003-04-13

U.S. marines trying to help neighborhoods get police and hospital services back up and running find themselves helping Iraqis to clear their schools, hospitals, and even their backyards of weapons left there by Iraqi troops.

Two days ago First Lieutenant Michael Cerroni started organizing small meetings in Baghdad's al-Muthana neighborhood to talk about how to get basic services up and running again. He meets daily with lawyers, doctors, engineers and other professionals.

They talk about what needs to be done. But they also are directing the U.S. soldiers to weapons stockpiles left behind by the Iraqi army.

After the latest meeting Sunday, one of the participants, a computer technician, came up to tell Lieutenant Cerroni about a trailer parked by a highway with its back doors ripped open and four large missiles piled in the back.

"He came to me and said to me, I have got something to show you, some missiles," said Lieutenant Cerroni. "And again, I thought it was rockets, because we have seen so many rockets. He said, 'no, they're larger, about nine meters long.' So I said, 'okay we'll go take a look.' And we drove down there, and my jaw just dropped. Right on the side of a highway. Anyone with a tractor could just back up and drive away with them."

On first inspection, Lieutenant Cerroni said they looked like banned Russian-made Frog-7 missiles with a range of 1,000 kilometers. But experts will have to inspect them to determine exactly what they are.

The Marine officer says people come in all day long to point out where Iraqi soldiers hid their weapons. At one school, the unit found guns and missiles stockpiled from floor to ceiling.

"There is a school that had probably from 5 to 6,000 RPGs [Rocket-Propelled Grenade], machine guns, anti-tank missiles, surface-to-air missiles stored in the school," he said. "So we stood guard on that, and it has taken us two full days, probably 30 dump trucks, to get rid of it all. And, we are still not done."

At another school, there were more than 100 suicide bomber vests, neatly tailored leather vests lined with explosives. Several small children were nearby, playing and reading books.

Lieutenant Cerroni says people also are asking the soldiers to help them dig up weapons Iraqi forces had made them bury in their backyards.

The Marine officer and his unit of 20 men have based themselves in a geriatrics clinic, which had been used by the Iraqi military as a communications center.

He says doctors and dentists from the neighborhood are bringing supplies to the clinic to help get it open and functioning again.

Without electricity, it has been hard to get word out, but Lieutenant Cerroni says a neighborhood mosque has volunteered to use its loudspeaker to announce the council meetings and other information for the neighborhood.

The Marine unit is also helping to clean up a neighborhood school so classes can restart this coming week. Lieutenant Cerroni says it is the best way to keep children off the streets, which are still littered with weapons and explosives.