At the beginning of this month, locals living in the Obeidi neighbourhood in Baghdad’s eastern suburbs were terrified by a loud explosion. They feared that their friends or neighbours had fallen victim to a suicide bomber or a car bomb. But very soon afterwards they discovered what had actually happened: There had been a fire inside a secret weapons store in their area.
The fire caused rockets and mortars to launch and these fell around Obeidi as well as onto adjacent neighbourhoods. In Obeidi, the epicentre of the blast, civilians were killed or injured and buildings destroyed.
Afterwards, worried locals had one question: What were all of these deadly armaments doing in the middle of a residential suburb? And how did they get there?
The militias are reluctant to move their weapons because they want to maintain the balance of power between themselves and any potential enemies.
It turned out that the weapons depot was one managed by a Shiite Muslim volunteer militia, one of those belonging to Hezbollah in Iraq. The militia have these weapons in order to be able to fight the extremist group known as the Islamic State, which has caused the security crisis in Iraq. The weapons were stored in an abandoned factory.
After the fire, Baghdad’s provincial council and the federal government put out statements saying that militias should not be storing weapons in highly populated areas in the central city. The militias themselves expressed regret, saying that they would try and prevent their fighters from storing weapons inside cities and that they would try and follow the orders on the subject issued by the Ministries of the Defence and the Interior as well as Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s office.
The militias involved began to move weapons out of some of the better known storage facilities and they also began closing some of their more random offices and unlicensed premises. But the ordinary citizens of Baghdad remain concerned. Some of the militias refuse to divulge where they are storing weapons and civilians suspect the depots are to be found in apartment buildings and other non-military facilities.
The Iraqi security services have said that they know of around 20 weapons depots in the capital. Some are in the Sadda neighbourhood in Sadr City toward the east, in Hurriyah and Shula toward the north and Maalef in the south. There are also other secret locations they know nothing about. The militias store the weapons everywhere from uninhabited houses and abandoned storage facilities to unused mosques and schools.
Video: The fire caused rockets and mortars to detonate.
“Security forces have trouble finding the exact locations because the militias are reluctant to tell us where they are – they don’t always have a good relationship with official military and police,” said one source in the security forces who wished to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to comment on the matter. “They are also reluctant to register their weapons.”
Another problem for the security forces is the fact that local tribal networks support the storage of weapons in areas they control. Security forces are reluctant to interfere in these community issues.
Ordinary citizens are afraid to ask the militias to move their weapons because in Iraq at the moment, the militias have a lot of power on the street. Often they have more authority than the regular army or police.
“We can’t tell the police or army about where the weapons depots are, even if we know about them,” argues one resident of Sadr City, speaking anonymously for security reasons. “And we can’t ask the militias to move them because we are worried they might hurt us, if we do either of those things.”
And this local fears there are more nefarious reasons for storing arms in civilian locations.
“In the past there were violent clashes between the police and army and the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias. There have also been fights between the militias themselves,” he points out. “That’s why the militias are keeping their guns in the areas they control. They’re reluctant to move them because they want to maintain the balance of power between themselves and any potential enemies, and they want to be ready to use them if they have to, in the case of any attack from potential enemies in the city.”
The local man doesn’t mean the Islamic State group – he is talking about official security forces and other militias.
Locals say that these secret arms depots are actually just another sign of the lack of confidence that many Iraqis have in their government to keep the peace, even in generally peaceful neighbourhoods; or perhaps a sign of the undeclared plans the militias have, once the IS group has been pushed out of Iraq.
Video: The aftermath of a fire in a secret weapons store in Baghdad.