Thanks to the current security crisis, there are so many Iraqis now playing a military role in Iraq that it is hard to know who is part of an official government body and therefore has some authority, and who isn't. Making this even more difficult is the fact that military uniforms have become more ubiquitous than ever. Ever since the extremist group known as the Islamic State sparked a nationwide security crisis and the mobilisation of thousands of volunteer fighters, the uniform sales business has been booming. And sales are largely unregulated.
Military uniforms are something of a fashion and Iraqis will often wear them on special occasions, whether they're in a military unit or not.
But now locals say criminals are using the easily available military clothing as a kind of disguise, that allows them to commit crimes with impunity. Any gang can roam the city streets as though they were a military force, Baghdad locals complain, and over the past few months kidnapping and robbery by such gangs has increased. It is impossible to tell who is who anymore, they say.
A military uniform, often made in China, costs around IQD50,000 (around US$44). But usually the quality of the cloth isn't very high and the uniform discolours and fades after time on duty out in the harsh Iraqi sun. This is why real soldiers and members of government-approved militias also buy equipment from the stores that sell uniforms and other security equipment. But ordinary people can also easily buy this type of clothing.
There are a lot of small shops in central Baghdad, near the headquarters of the country's Ministry of the Interior, selling military uniforms and other gear. After the highest Shiite Muslim religious authorities in the country called upon Iraqis to defend the country against the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group last year, the number of these shops grew. And every day government officials go past the stores.
The stores don't just sell military uniforms. They also stock gear like batons, holsters, handcuffs, water bottles, knee guards, heavy gloves and sunglasses, among other things.
“The presence of these stores makes it easier for terrorists and gangs to buy military uniforms, wear them and use them illegally to commit crimes,” confirms Hisham al-Hashimi, a local security expert and researcher into armed militias in Iraq. “It requires much stricter security and supervision from the Ministry of Interior.”
And the increase in the numbers of these kinds of shops has happened for various reasons. Among them, al-Hashimi suggests, “ is a lack of discipline in the Iraqi military, which is responsible for importing these uniforms.”
Al-Hashimi also believes that many of the shops are actually owned by military officers or officials in the Ministry of Defence who obviously have a strong interest in keeping the stores running.
“Licenses are also given to the owners of the stores by officials from the Interior Ministry in return for cash,” al-Hashimi suggests.
“The Ministry has created a special section for licensed shops and has registered the names of all the sellers of uniforms,” explains Saad Maan, the spokesperson for the Ministry of the Interior and the Baghdad Operations Command, which is responsible for security in the capital. “The Ministry has also issued instructions to the store owners of these shops not to sell their goods to anyone other than members of the army. The store owners and the security forces cooperate and this business is well supervised,” Maan said, adding that he thinks it would be difficult for terrorists or criminals to get hold of the uniforms.
The planned supervision doesn't always work out though. As one of the salespeople in a store in the Allawi neighbourhood of Baghdad told NIQASH, his main concern is money.
“I just need to sell the products,” he said; he wished to remain anonymous. “It is the responsibility of the security forces to catch anyone making use of these uniforms for other purposes. I cannot play their role. I am just an employee of this store and I don't earn more than US$250 a month.”
Another salesman, Ali Abu Walid, says he did use to check the identities of buyers who bought the uniforms. But during the last two years, as sales have become more popular and all kinds of individuals come to buy the clothing, the process of checking identification “has become very bothersome,” he said.
“All of the equipment we have comes from the Iraqi government – because we are officially run by the government,” insists Karim al-Nour, a senior member of one of Iraq’s Shiite militias, the Badr organization. The militias, made up mostly of Shiite Muslim, civilian volunteers, have been fighting the IS group around Iraq and are considered both controversial and heroic by locals. So the Badr organization doesn't work with these stores, he notes. However, al-Nour adds, “some of the fighters may need some extra items sometimes and they may buy them from these shops. But it is not official. Most of our equipment comes from the government.”
However as Ala Abu, a senior member of another militia known as the Peace Brigades who are part of the millions-strong Sadrist movement, says, “our Brigades don't use the uniforms distributed by the government. This is mainly because of their low quality. The high temperatures in Iraq mean they are easily ruined. That's why they often buy their uniforms, in small quantities, from the stores. Our fighters believe these stores are licensed and that they are official suppliers – that's why the Ministry [of Interior] has allowed the sellers to go about their business,” he argues.