A few days ago the Iraqi government made Khalaf al-Saedi, the head of a family of nine living in the Shula neighbourhood in west Baghdad, a happy man. Why? Because, he says, he can now hang his rifle in his living room, rather than keeping it hidden away.
Al-Saedi is proud of his rifle. “I keep a gun to protect myself and my family,” he explained. “I have it to stop thieves and murderers from attacking myself or my relatives.”
This week, the Iraqi government made al-Saedi’s gun official: locals are now allowed to own their own guns without any further licensing issues.
In an official statement the Iraqi government said on May 6, that each Iraqi household may possess one firearm on the condition that the gun has been registered at the nearest police station.
And as in other gun-owning nations, such as the US, Iraqis differ in how they feel about this. Those who are pro-weapons, support the decision while those who are anti-weapons believe the decision will further militarise the country. The latter also believe it’s an acknowledgement of the government’s inability to control the security situation.
“The government’s decision to allow guns gives the impression that it is not able to control the security situation in Iraq,” MP Shwan Mohammed Taha, a member of the parliamentary committee on security and defence, said.
But a source inside the Ministry of Interior said the authorities actually felt this was an acknowledgement of the reality in Iraq, an idea that would allow them to better control security inside the country. By getting locals to register their firearms, the government would get a better idea of what kinds of weapons were in the country and how many there were.
Up until recently, the right to own a firearm in Iraq was reserved for members of the security forces and those in certain other professions. However, in reality, it would be fair to say that most Iraqi households own at least one gun, whether permitted or not.
Guns are a long standing part of Iraqi – and, in fact, a lot of Middle Eastern culture – they come out en masse at weddings and funerals, when shots are fired into the air either to celebrate or to express condolences. A popular saying goes something like this: if you have extra money, marry another woman. Or buy a gun”.
Most Iraqis are proud of their weapons, purchasing and maintaining a wide number of arms – including heavier weaponry. This is particularly true in more lawless, tribal areas outside major cities.
Owning a gun in Iraq is de rigueur and the bigger or bolder the gun the better – Saddam Hussein, for example, owned a number of golden guns and would appear in public with them. Former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi also had a set of golden weapons.
One newcomer to Iraq described attending parties where relatively wealthy young Kurdish men, recently returned from studying overseas, proudly displayed their newly purchased weapons.
It’s not just for show. As many Iraqis will tell you, it’s necessary to keep guns because of the security situation in Iraq over recent years. Things have changed a little in this regard. But as one local said, “once we used to carry our guns with us all the time, now we might leave them in the car”.
Arkan Mohammed is one these. He works for an electricity company and every day, he takes his gun – a pistol he bought from an Iraqi police officer for US$2,000 - to work, hiding it under the seat of his car.
“The new law has made me feel more relaxed about carrying my gun,” Mohammed told NIQASH. “This area is dangerous and there are a lot of terrorists operating around here. We have no idea when they might turn up to attack us.”
And in fact, the last legislation relating to guns was issued during former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s regime in the early 1990s. Besides banning the illegal trade in arms, it also banned the repair of unlicensed weapons and imposed penalties that included up to seven years in prison. For this reason, up until today, Iraqi security forces tended to confiscate surplus weapons during house searches. However, they also tended to tolerate householders keeping one weapon.
Many cities and towns also have illegal weapons markets, often hidden in places where passersby couldn’t locate them easily but where those in the know can visit. The markets may also move from location to location. As one police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “we don’t go into those areas because some of the security personnel have connections with the arms dealers. And,” the officer added, “this new legislation will only make these dealers stronger - the government has basically legalised the carrying of weapons.”
The police officer mentioned prices too. A Kalashnikov, or AK-47 assault rifle, can be purchased for up to US$500, depending on where it was made (some nations are known for better quality weapons than others). A well made handgun costs between US$1,000 and US$3,000, again depending on where it was made. And apparently Glock pistols are particularly popular at the moment.
The police officer said he was unaware of where the guns all came from. However MP Hamid al-Mutlaq, of the Iraqiya list, who also sits on the parliamentary committee on security and defence, told NIQASH he believed that most of the weapons came from former members of the Iraqi military.
Al-Mutlaq tells how, when US troops entered Baghdad in 2003, many members of the Iraqi military simply changed into civilian clothing and left their weapons; none of them wanted to be recognised as soldiers. Many of the guns eventually fell into civilian hands – and they were either kept by individuals or sold on to unofficial arms dealers.
However there are obviously also plenty of Iraqis opposed to having so many weapons around.
In 2007, the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior gave members of some professions the right to carry weapons – this included doctors, lawyers, engineers, journalists and some civil servants - because they were being targeted for assassination or kidnapping by extremists, just because of their jobs.
But even though he was allowed to carry a gun, Iraqi surgeon Sami Abdul Redha did not. In fact, Redha refuses to even carry a knife.
“When I heard this news, I didn’t believe it at first,” Redha exclaims. “How could the government just allow everyone to have guns? Instead they should have tried to collect up all the weapons; the use of guns should be restricted to the security forces – as is the case in all civilised societies,” he argues.
“The spread of weapons will just lead to an increased number of deaths,” the doctor says. “People are more likely to use their guns for any old reason, when any kind of conflict erupts - between neighbours, for instance.”
“Legitimizing the acquisition of weapons will only lead to further conflict between Iraqis and strengthen the culture of violence,” civil society activist, Arabiya al-Jinabi, argued. “People will just take the law into their own hands.”
Additionally, al-Jinabi felt that the more civilians who owned guns there were, the more complicated the security situation would be. “There are more members of the security services now. But they lack expertise, training and military discipline. And this [legislation] is only going to complicate things in the long run,” she concluded.
As for west Baghdad man, Khalaf al-Saedi, what does he think now? He says he’s very proud of his gun and that he would have kept it anyway, even if this law hadn’t come along.
“And anyway I can’t trust the security forces,” he retorts. “They always come after any disaster has happened. That is, if they ever turn up.”