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biggest winners in iraqi crisis so far? karbala's gun dealers

Ibrahim al-Jibouri
Thousands of Iraqis have heeded the call to fight against extremists in the country's north. But not all volunteers have been given guns. Between them and the private households worried about security, the demand…
19.06.2014  |  Karbala
A gun displayed at one of Iraqs informal weapons markets.
A gun displayed at one of Iraqs informal weapons markets.

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Before last Tuesday Zuhair al-Daami had eight rifles and nine pistols to sell – he is a weapons dealer in the Hindiya area in the Karbala province. And he had not been able to sell them. But since last Tuesday, when Sunni Muslim extremists took over the northern city of Mosul, they have all sold – and there is plenty of demand for more.

“Within two days I sold them all and at very good prices,” al-Daami told NIQASH. “But I only sell these weapons to people I trust. I don't sell weapons to people I don't know. And I would never deal with anyone who might smuggle these weapons out f the country or sell them to terrorists who would kill our families and destroy our cities. We would be the victims if money was our only goal.”

Nonetheless there's no doubt that there's a fine profit to be made from selling guns in the southern Iraqi province of Karbala this month.

A big part of the reason for the rise in prices is the current drive to volunteer for the Iraqi army. There have been calls from leading clerics and politicians for Iraqis to defend the country against the threat posed by Sunni Muslim extremists in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria group. And many have heeded that call, especially in southern Iraq where the population skews toward Shiite Muslim. Some say he's exaggerating but Karbala governor Aqeel al-Turaihi estimates that over 20,000 locals have volunteered to join the Iraqi army.

Article 27 of the Iraqi Weapons Act says that any person smuggling or dealing in illegal arms may face the death penalty. But that does not seem to have deterred weapons dealers; guns of all kinds are usually freely available from informal gun markets or weapons dealers. Additionally, legislation passed in May 2102 states that each Iraqi household may possess one firearm on the condition that the gun has been registered at the nearest police station.

And like most other Iraqi cities, where illegal weapons markets are common, Karbala has its fair share of arms dealers. Some of them are following in the footsteps of their male relatives – Iraq has a long tradition of personal gun ownership - while others have entered the business because, despite the penalties, it’s a profitable market. And one that has grown even more profitable this month as prices for weapons have increased astronomically.

“Prices have gone up at an incredible rate,” says another Hindiya gun dealer, Ghanem al-Tarafi. “A Kalashnikov now costs more than IQD2 million [US$1,700]. A few days before extremists captured Mosul it wasn't worth more than IQD1 million. Pistol prices have also gone up. A Browning pistol – which is considered one of the best - goes for as much as IQD3 million now [US$2,500]. Mainly because a lot of ordinary people are buying it for personal protection.”

A former soldier in the Iraqi army, Ahmad al-Yasar was at one of the volunteering centres signing on. He noted that other volunteers were not getting weapons issued by the government. “They are only getting training in the use of weapons and physical training,” al-Yasar says; he offered to help train others in the use of light weapons.

A lot of the guns being bought are also for personal use.

Karbala local Hussein al-Shammari says he was happy to pay IQD2.1 million (US$1,800) for a Kalashnikov. He bought it off one of his relatives who used to work as an army officer and who had three guns. He also paid another IQD240,000 (around US$200) for 120 bullets.

“Under conditions like this owning a gun is necessary,” al-Shammari explained why he spent so much money. “Especially if this city were to be attacked, in the way that Mosul was.”

“Today it's important to have a gun in the house. Conditions are very dangerous,” agrees Amir al-Nasrawi, a store owner in Karbala. Al-Nasrawi couldn’t afford a Kalashnikov but he bought himself a gun for IQD1.3 million (around US$1,100). However he was upset to find that bullets for his gun are scarce because it is not one commonly used by the Iraqi army. A lot of the guns for sale on the black market come from inside the army. “The price of each bullet is IQD5,000 [US$4] and that's beyond my financial means,” he complains.

“The prices of guns have really gone up,” says Zaman Tisaa – his name means nine and he says this is his professional nickname because he specializes in 9mm pistols. The most expensive weapon currently is a US-made rifle, Tisaa explains. It will set buyers back about IQD5 million (around US$4,200) and it is easy to find bullets because it's the gun used by high ranking army and police officers.

It is not just guns that have gone up in price. Ahmad Zabaleh runs a shop selling military clothing and equipment and he says the price of his stock is also rising. “A military uniform used to sell for IQD15,000 [US$13] but now it costs IQD40,000 [US$33]. Military boots used to cost IQD25,000 [US$21]. Now they cost IQD40,000.”

Back in the central city, near one of the recruitment centres for volunteers a group of young people were gathered. Both the provincial governor al-Turaihi and the commander of security forces in Karbala, Othman al-Ghanimi, had warned that weapons should only be held by those who joined the armed forces, to prevent their falling into the wrong hands. So while police and soldiers watched them, the young men pulled out their weapons and fired into the sky – they were celebrating their volunteering to fight.