In a market in the Baghdad suburb of Sadr City, masked men display their wares on open tables the same way vegetable sellers do in other city markets. But instead of calling out the prices of the goods on show, the men whisper to passers-by so only those closest can hear.
Next to grenades on the tables are rockets, mortars and plenty of other weaponry, with markings that indicate they come from a number of different sources. The men behind the tables wear masks or glasses and hats to hide their faces. Welcome to Maridi market, one of Baghdad’s –if not, Iraq’s - most famous arms markets.
Markets like Maridi sprang up around Iraq after 2003, when former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein lost his iron grip on the country. There are many such markets around the country, most large cities have them and they are often protected and run by local tribes, which makes them impervious to official security forces. Maridi market is considered the “Iraqi stock exchange” of these unofficial gun markets.
There are a lot of ways in which one can obtain weapons, says Alaa Zamel, a trader in the market. The most significant route is across unguarded border crossings from turkey. The guns and other weapons enter Iraqi Kurdistan in northern Iraq and are then brought to Baghdad; checkpoints don’t seem to be a problem and if they are, some counterfeit ID cards or a bribe will often work.
“Most of the weapons come from military stores, especially those located near the front,” Zamel told NIQASH. “Soldiers who lose their weapons during fighting are not questioned as to why. If a soldier dies fighting, lost weapons are registered in their name. So a lot of the lost weapons are registered in dead soldiers’ names. And those weapons go to the arms dealers.”
Thanks to the problems in Iraq and many Iraqis wanting to leave the country, often illegally, a lot of soldiers and other members of the state security forces sold their weapons as part of efforts to raise funds for their journey, Zamel says. Additionally some soldiers simply supplement their incomes by registering their weapons as lost and then selling them.
And he believes the standard of weapons sold at Maridi is higher than the standard of official issue armaments. “Some army officers come to this market to buy what they need because they know its better quality,” Zamel says.
Another source at the market who wished to remain anonymous, told NIQASH that there are members of the volunteer Shiite Muslim militias who take their officially supplied weapons and sell them on the black market to make money.
Mostly the gun markets are in out of the way places that the official army or police don’t go to. And the arms dealers are creative, the source says. Even if security did close the gun markets down the traders would doubtless still sell using dedicated, and private, Facebook pages.
Most households in Baghdad own at least one gun and the arms dealers say that more and more people are buying weapons illegally. They are used in tribal conflicts that turn violent and for personal protection, the dealers suggest. Often young men will boast about their guns.
“But the customers here are not just ordinary people,” says Hassan al-Yasiri, who also has a stand at the market selling light weapons like pistols, automatic weapons and grenades. “A lot of them are army officers and government officials.”
“There is higher demand for light weapons like the Beretta 16mm handgun because it is often used by army officers and bodyguards,” al-Yasiri says. Because of such demand, a Berretta 16mm can sell for as much as $US1,300 and, al-Yasiri adds, prices for this and other weaponry can increase or decrease depending on events. “Prices go up during security and political crises and down during economic crises,” the weapons trader explains, before detailing the market’s price list.
The Walther pistol is also used by army and police and can fetch as much as US$1,000. Different types of automatic weapons cost different amounts, depending on where they were manufactured. A Kalashnikov-style weapon could have been made in Russia, Belgium, Romania or Iran. Two kinds of machine guns are sold here too, some made in Russia and others in Iran, and these cost around US$2,000. There are also grenades that can be thrown by hand or machine-fired; they cost US$50 each.
“Iraqis call these rumanna [in English, pomegranates] because they look a little bit like them,” al-Yasiri notes.
“They even sell mortars and rocket launchers here. These are most often bought and used by militia groups because they’re not heavy and they’re easy to hide. They cost US$1,000 each though they may cost a little more.”
Having listed the prices of the guns and other weapons at the market al-Yasiri happily confirmed that he and his colleagues in arms dealing make a good profit, up to several thousand dollars daily and that no other job in the country compares.
Of course, the weapons sold at the market are illegal, he agrees. But the traders will often issue customers with forged gun licenses issued by offices inside Maridi market itself.
Al-Haj Ahmad Khashan is a potential customer at the market, examining one of the guns on a nearby table. The instability of the Iraqi state, the absence of the rule of law, the presence of unofficial militias in the streets and that state of security in Baghdad are all factors that make locals want their own guns, Khashan suggests.
“Battles and being in a continuous state of conflict is what is causing people to want to buy weapons,” he notes.
The police in Baghdad are concerned about the gun markets, Saad Maan, spokesman for the Baghdad Operations Command, the body tasked with ensuring security in Baghdad, told NIQASH. And they conduct ongoing raids on the markets and try to arrest those carrying guns without the proper permits.
Maan denied what the traders said, that it was easy to bring weapons into Baghdad because those manning security checkpoints on the way into the city were willing to turn a blind eye.
“And any soldier who dies in battle should have his weapon brought back to his commander, who then issues a dead of release so that everyone knows that the dead soldier’s weapon has been accounted for,” Maan explains how things should work.