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thanks to syria, gun trade grows in one of iraq’s safest cities

Mohammed Hamid al-Sawaf
Syrian violence has seen illegal weapons dealers in Iraq get richer. Now even the relatively safe, prosperous city of Karbala, where locals must check their guns in to officials before entering, is seeing an…
6.09.2012  |  Karbala
A gun for sale at an illegal weapons market in Iraq.
A gun for sale at an illegal weapons market in Iraq.

The engineer from Karbala had been trying to buy a gun with which he could protect his family for some time. In fact, he spent more than a month searching for someone to take him to a dealer in illegal arms.

Although the city, southwest of Baghdad, is a comparatively prosperous metropolis with job opportunities in agriculture and tourism (Karbala is one of the holiest cities in the world for Shiite Muslims and draws millions of tourists annually to shrines and other sites) and also, relatively speaking, a secure city, citizens still fear kidnappings and extremist attacks. And local engineer, Watheq Abdul-Jabbar, was one of these.

But when he eventually met with a gun dealer, he was shocked at how many weapons the man had with him. There are checkpoints at entrances to the city where gun owners must hand over their weapons; they receive them back again, when leaving the city.

“The brazen behaviour of the arms dealer shocked me,” Abdul-Jabbar told NIQASH. “We were sitting in one of the coffee shops in the city centre when he opened a bag full of guns. For a minute, I was even suspicious – because he was so unconcerned about doing this. He was carrying a huge amount of arms with him.”

“How could one man own all of these guns”, he thought to himself. Abdul-Jabbar eventually paid more than one million Iraqi dinars (around US$840) for the pistol he eventually bought.

Article 27 of the Iraqi Weapons Act says that any person smuggling or dealing in illegal arms may face the death penalty. Recently there have been calls by parliamentarians to reduce this penalty to life imprisonment. However, whatever the law says, it does not seem to have deterred weapons dealers in the country.

Additionally, new legislation passed in early May this year stated that each Iraqi household may possess one firearm on the condition that the gun has been registered at the nearest police station.

And like most other Iraqi cities, where illegal weapons markets are common, Karbala has its fair share of arms dealers. Some of them are following in the footsteps of their male relatives – Iraq has a long tradition of personal gun ownership - while others have entered the business because, despite the penalties, it’s a profitable market that has only grown larger over the past year.

The demand for guns is a reflection of the locals’ desires to protect themselves, one of Karbala’s arms dealers, Abbas Bustum, told NIQASH – especially when they feel that Iraq’s own security forces are unable to protect them.

“In fact, most of the people who own guns are engineers, doctors, high ranking officials and merchants,” he explained.

Most of the weapons on the black market are either stolen from the security forces themselves or remnants of the former Iraqi government’s security forces, when the country was led by Saddam Hussein, he said.

And just as cities in the north of Iraq have, cities in central and southern Iraq have also seen an increase in the prices of black market weapons over the past months. There’s been an increase in demand, especially in the western provinces like Anbar, which neighbour Syria.

“The market has boomed over these past few months,” said another arms dealer, Hassan, who, after overcoming his initial fear about speaking with NIQASH, would only do so under an assumed name. “Prices have doubled, then tripled. The prices of some weapons are over ten times their usual value.”

Hassan, who was interviewed in the middle of a large field in a Karbala suburb, was also willing to talk about how he smuggled guns from Karbala to Baghdad. “The last shipment contained more than 200 Kalashnikov rifles and five machine guns. It was all hidden under a shipment of fruits and vegetables. And it’s not too hard,” he added. “We choose special routes where we know there won’t be any checkpoints, which means the trucks don’t have to pass through them.”

Recently Hassan has shipped five batches of weapons successfully and confirms that there are other parties sending guns through to the Anbar and Mosul areas, into Syria where they apparently end up with those Syrians fighting the Syrian government.

Hassan says he doesn’t care much where the guns end up. “It’s just a business deal,” he argues.

Most Iraqis are proud of their own weapons, purchasing and maintaining a wide number of arms – including heavier weaponry. This is particularly true in more lawless, tribal areas outside major cities and some sources say that tribal areas are actually the source of a lot of Iraq’s illegal arms trade.

As a result, Karbala’s Office of Tribal Affairs started a campaign, aimed at educating those responsible within the various tribal areas about the dangers of illegal gun trade.

The campaign talks about the dangers of an escalation in gun trafficking and also about fears that weapons might fall into the wrong hands, for instance, those of local extremists, who might use them in terrorist acts.

“Because the smuggling of weapons has increased dramatically in the last few months,” Sattar al-Ardawi, a member of the local security committee and the head of Tribal affairs, explained. But he added, a few days ago security services arrested a number of suspected arms dealers in Karbala.

Additionally Al-Ardawi says he cannot rule out the possibility that there are international agents behind some of the weapons smuggling.

In the recent past, observers have suggested that Syria has become the latest frontier in the Shiite Muslim and Sunni Muslim conflict, with accusations that the governments of some Gulf states, mostly Sunni Muslim, are secretly arming the Syrians fighting against regime of Bashar al-Assad, a member of a Shiite Muslim sect.

Meanwhile the government in Iran, a mostly Shiite Muslim led theocracy, is certainly supporting the al-Assad regime diplomatically. Recent calls by international governments asking Iraq to shut down an international air corridor that Iran is allegedly using to fly weapons to supply the Syrian military, suggests that Iran is also supporting the al-Assad regime in a more practical way.