Every year on Iraqi social media, locals post stories about the problem with stray bullets. One such example involves a young man called Ahmed who ended up being killed on his wedding day – by one of the friends he had invited to the marriage. As is traditional in Iraq, those celebrating the union had been firing guns into the sky. A stray bullet hit the groom and he was killed.
It’s a long-standing tradition in Iraq to fire guns into the air at occasions like weddings, funerals and even sports matches. But recently popular opinion seems to be turning against the practice. This week Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, announced that he is going to launch a campaign to encourage people to stop firing their guns at special occasions. The ministry of the interior joined in, announcing they too would be taking part in the campaign and saying they had arrested seven people over the past week for firing into the air. The ministry of health added that one person was killed and 19 others were injured after locals watched the recent Arabian Gulf Cup, when the Iraqi team won and moved through to the next round.
Many tribes see a gun ban at big events as an insult.
Part of the problem is the amount of gun ownership in Iraq. In 2012, the Iraqi government led by Nouri al-Maliki, prime minister at the time, said that each household could own one gun but that the weapon needed to be registered at the nearest police station. This rule didn’t really work – there are so many unregistered guns in Iraq as well as special gun markets in almost every city. One of Baghdad’s most famous is the Maridi market, in the middle of the low-income suburb of Sadr City.
Most of the time these markets are able to ply their trade without any interference from authorities. However, much to locals’ surprise, last week there was a raid on Maridi market that saw automatic guns, ordinary pistols and ever rocket propelled grenade launchers confiscated, as well as machinery for the modification of weapons.
“There is not one house that doesn’t have one or more weapons inside,” says a Baghdad police captain, Samir Hadi. “We know that during celebrations they fire their guns but it is almost impossible to tell where the shots are coming from. And when we do manage to arrest somebody, they usually find a way to get off, either through influential people in their family or by bribes.”
The current law on the matter, dating back to 2000, says that anyone who fires their gun could be imprisoned for between one and six months, and may have to pay a fine.
“But actually putting the law into practice is very difficult,” Hadi says. “And it needs to be applied equally to everyone, without discriminating between citizens.”
Sometimes those doing the celebratory shooting are members of militias, police or army; sometimes they are government officials, Hadi told NIQASH, which makes it almost impossible to arrest people for this crime.
The firing of guns at celebrations was most likely established in the 1920s, when Iraqi tribes rose up against colonial British troops, suggests Haidar al-Rumaithi, a community leader in the province of Maysan. At the time one of the most popular weapons was a kind of club, that if used to hit an enemy on the head, could kill instantly. However because the British colonisers had guns, the tribes in southern Iraq began to use them too.
As far as al-Rumaithi is aware, the guns became part of a popular dance, during which tribe members walked around in a circle, holding their guns, before firing the weapons into the middle of the circle. After this, a speaker would recite a poem, appropriate to the occasion, whether happy or sad.
It’s extremely difficult to get people to give this tradition up, al-Rumaithi says. “Many tribes see a gun ban at big events as an insult,” he explains. But he does understand why people should not be shooting their weapons off at will in big cities like Baghdad. “Anyway it is a tribal tradition that is all about the heritage of those from the southern Iraqi countryside,” he notes.
Iraqi MP, Muna al-Ghurabi, has suggested that the government increase the penalties for anyone caught firing their guns at events. “Those who fire guns should be prosecuted with the anti-terrorism law,” she wrote in a statement calling upon tribes and civil society organizations to campaign against this potentially deadly activity.