Before 2014, Aziz al-Khlaifawi says he never would have expected to see military uniforms and paraphernalia sold so openly on the streets of his city, Fallujah, in the central Iraqi province of Anbar. The 35-year-old works as a tailor in one of the city’s central markets and says that there used to be only one or two shops selling military gear and accessories and these were near security checkpoints in the Al Andalus neighbourhood.
“Those shops were threatened and bombed more than once and we had to close them because it was not worthwhile financially, and because of the ongoing threat from militants,” al-Khlaifawi told NIQASH.
People buy military outfits for lots of different reasons and profit cannot be your only motivation, he notes.
The new shops are, al-Khlaifawi, a sign of the increased security in Anbar now that the extremist group known as the Islamic State have been more or less pushed out of the province. There are shops selling military equipment and military uniforms right around Iraq: It’s a popular look. But it has not been that way in Anbar for years. The reason that it was unsafe to sell military uniforms and equipment in Anbar in the past was because locals harboured deep antipathies toward the Iraqi army. The army was seen as being a mostly Shiite Muslim force out to oppress the Sunni Muslim-majority population of Anbar. Those antipathies were part of the reason the Islamic State, or IS, group was able to gain such a strong hold on the local population at first: They were – mistakenly as it turned out – seen as a force that would stand with the local people against their oppressors.
But clearly those perceptions have since changed. It is not all friendly between locals and the Iraqi military but in many ways, the relationship is far better because the military helped push the Islamic State out of the province.
Previously any kind of trade in military garments and equipment was limited to individuals who actually worked with, or had contacts, with the security forces. Anyone who wanted to open a store like this had to have very good security themselves. But the new attitudes and new conditions in Anbar – which prevents Sunni Muslim extremists from attacking stores – means that a businessperson like al-Khlaifawi can add an extra workroom to produce these kinds of outfits.
“It’s become a very profitable trade,” he says. “I have an extra workroom now to produce uniforms and I also have a showroom for accessories, like badges and other things – I sell everything apart from weapons and ammunition.”
Inside one of Anbar's military outfitters.
It is possible to buy all kinds of military equipment in these stores: uniforms, helmets, badges, shoes and armour. Local stores have started to compete in the way they display outfits and are trying to come up with different designs.
However being in this business still has its pitfalls. Adham Mohammed, 35, works in another of the military equipment stories in Fallujah and he says that anybody who works in this kind of shop needs to know what to expect.
“He needs good observation skills and good experience in dealing with customers,” Mohammed says, reasoning that people come and buy military outfits for lots of different reasons. “Profit cannot be your only motivation,” he notes.
In his experience, there are four types of customers. There are those who want to buy the military gear as a gift, those who just like the badges and different insignia, those who are buying it as a kind of costume for children and then there’s the more dangerous kind of customer: “The kind of person who buys the full uniform and all the equipment,” Mohammed warns.
“I don’t sell goods to people who I have doubts about,” he adds, “because they could be people who are just buying the uniforms to disguise themselves and carry out terrorist or criminal attacks.” There have been several recent cases where members of the IS group dressed up as security forces and stopped others at a checkpoint, before murdering or kidnapping them.
Aws al-Bajari is a 42-year-old officer in the Iraqi army stationed in another large Anbar city, Ramadi. He says he is happy that his team members can walk around in Ramadi without carrying their guns and he likes the fact that military equipment is being sold openly in local shops, seeing it as a sign of stability in Anbar and also a result of the Iraqi army’s victory.
He also thinks it makes his fellow soldiers more competitive about what accessories they buy and how they look. However he does also think that the flow of military goods needs to be controlled somehow, so that they don’t get into the wrong hands, people who could, he says, “carry out terrorist attacks and accuse the security forces of having done it.”