WASHINGTON – A former Army intelligence analyst says a number of Iraqi exiles have reported the deposed regime stashed small missiles, weapons and ammunition at mosques in and around Baghdad.

U.S. forces have confiscated large caches of weapons in raids of Iraqi homes, but they are barred from raiding religious sites.

Guerrilla fighters continue to attack troops with mortars, grenades, homemade explosives and small arms fire on a daily basis. They are tapping into a huge arsenal left behind by the former regime, one that some military officials in Iraq fear could supply fighters for several years.

Iraqi exiles from differing ethnic groups and religions have reported that mosques are the source of the seemingly endless supply of arms.

“I’ve gotten enough reports that are almost identical from people who are independent from one another to figure there’s some credence to it,” said ret. U.S. Army Lt. Col. Stephen H. Franke, a former Iraq weapons inspector and Arabic translator who has debriefed Iraqi defectors.

“They say they [remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime] are hiding arms in mosques, hiding stuff under mosques, hiding stuff in basements of mosques or storage rooms in mosques,” added Franke, who recently returned to Iraq as a contractor. “They say they stashed small missiles, weapons and ammunition inside the mosques – stuff that would be a super no-no under the Geneva Convention, but they don’t care.”

The Taliban also used mosques as arms depots, as well as command-and-control centers, during the Afghanistan conflict.

Under the law of land war, religious properties cannot be used to shield military forces or equipment.

If they are, such properties “may be targeted only if it is determined that an attack is a military necessity and meets a proportionality test,” explained Pentagon spokesman Army Maj. Ted Wadsworth.

“Targeting analyses for such objects should take into account the value to the civilian population of such objects and the harmful results of attacking such objects,” he added. And they should also factor in their cultural and historical significance.

In other words, Iraqi mosques are off-limits, says a U.S. Central Command official.

“This politically correct stuff is going to continue to get our guys killed,” he said. “They’re continuing to hide bombs, grenades and other stuff in those mosques.”

More than 70 American troops have been killed by hostile fire in Iraq since President Bush declared an end to major combat operations there.

Stockpiling weapons was part of a secret postwar plan by Saddam Hussein to sabotage the U.S. occupation. A Jan. 23 memo classified “Top Secret” and found in Iraqi intelligence files calls for, among other things, “purchasing stolen weapons from citizens” and “mobilizing of dependable elements and bringing them into mosques.”

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