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Wednesday, March 10

Air Force to probe charges Guardsmen brought souvenir rifles from Iraq

By The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The U.S. Air Force is investigating allegations that Kentucky Air National Guardsmen violated military regulations by bringing home AK-47 rifles taken as battlefield souvenirs in Iraq.

Defense Department regulations bar service members from taking firearms or other souvenirs from the enemy. Violators can be court-martialed for theft under the Code of Military Justice.

The commander of the 123rd Airlift Wing, Col. Michael L. Harden, said the allegations came to light last month. He declined to say how many airmen are under investigation, how many weapons were involved or whether they have been recovered, although he said the firearms pose no threat to the public.

Lt. Col. Phil Miller, a Guard spokesman, said the Air Force Office of Special Investigations is conducting the review, which is focused on who may be accountable for the alleged breach.

Master Sgt. Carolyn Collins, a spokeswoman for that office, based at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C., said it would have no comment.

Harden said civil authorities were notified about the allegations.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Louisville confirmed that it received a report last month that four rifles were brought back to the airlift wing's base in Louisville. But weapons brought into the U.S. by members of the armed forces are exempt from registration laws, so the ATF determined it had no jurisdiction, said Special Agent Laura Volk.

Harden said the allegations mark the first time since he was assigned to the Kentucky Air National Guard in 1976 that its airmen have been accused of improperly importing war booty.

Military rules ``absolutely forbid'' personnel from taking weapons, he said. Capt. Bruce Frame, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, said no war souvenirs of any kind could be taken from the battlefield in Iraq. ``It is not authorized, period,'' Frame said.

Federal regulations banning battlefield souvenirs are designed in part to protect the safety of the service members, Frame said. ``Combat equipment is by nature lethal and dangerous,'' he said. ``The unregulated transportation of captured enemy weapons, munitions or military articles of equipment would pose a threat to personal safety.''

The Air Force has banned the collection of firearms, ammunition, religious items, coins and jewelry since the Vietnam War. The war trophy regulation allows some items, such as enemy flags and mess kits, to be brought back to the U.S. with approval of battlefield commanders.

The U.S. military cracked down on souvenir-taking in Iraq after five troops were accused of skimming $900,000 in cash from a Baghdad palace, and the U.S. command was criticized for failing to prevent looting of artifacts by Iraqis from Iraqi museums.

One service member was investigated for allegedly shipping home gold-plated ornamental weapons, and a half-dozen journalists have been caught with items from Iraq, including a Fox News employee who was charged with smuggling and fired from his job as an engineer.

Harden said the rules against souvenir collecting already were widely known in the Kentucky Air National Guard, and they have been re-emphasized since the allegations came to light last month.

He declined to say if any airman has been disciplined or suspended. ``It is way too early to say who is at fault,'' he said.