AL HILLAH, Iraq -- Marine Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialists are working not only to clean the country of unexploded Iraqi weaponry, but also to protect the local populace.
The mandate for the teams is to secure the munitions in Iraq and centrally locate them, said Capt. Ron Heflin, the I Marine Expeditionary Force's explosive ordnance disposal officer.
"We've got to keep looking," he said. "This is a long-term project."
Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein used military bases to store his weapons, but started moving them to mosques, schools, police stations, private homes and other facilities, Heflin said. This makes the search even tougher.
"Imagine if we tried to outlaw guns in America and then tried to collect them," said Lt. Col. Chris Lozano, the I MEF's engineering information officer. This country is roughly the size of California, he said.
Some munitions have been picked up by Marines or turned over to them by Iraqis, Heflin said. Some locals took Marines to a bunker near Saddam's Babylon palace that contained 60 mm mortars, Rocket Propelled Grenades and other items, he said.
There are two reasons for the effort, Heflin said. The first is to keep the munitions away from local residents so they don't get hurt.
"It's a real concern," he said. Some Iraqi civilians have already injured themselves with weapons and munitions that were not secured, he said. Of special concern are children, who could find and accidentally detonate some type of ordinance while playing.
It also poses a danger to coalition forces. There are still minefields along Main Supply Route Tampa that are being cleared by engineers, Heflin said.
The second reason for the collection to keep and store the serviceable weapons to re-arm a future Iraqi defense force.
"To give them the tools to self govern and protect themselves," Heflin said.
The Marines near Al Hillah have been using an ammunition storage facility inside a large, abandoned Iraqi military base. It was easier to take the materials to an established bunker and secure them then to try to build a new one, he said.
There were still some Iraqi armaments left in the base's bunkers. Some of them were damaged in the war, but others remained in good condition.
The Marines have several other sites around the country where they are storing weapons.
"We're finding everything from howitzer rounds from 75 mm all the way up to 160 mm," Heflin said.
Mainers have recovered small arms, rockets and missile systems.
"We're finding the whole gambit," he said.
Heflin said the Marines have come across some unexpected weapons, too. Perhaps the most surprising were some 3.5 inch howitzers from the Korean War era and some 75 mm howitzers from the World War II era. More amazingly, they are in mint condition, he said.