BAGHDAD - The widespread possession of arms in Iraq does not raise eyebrows; however the legalisation of weapons sales that resulted in a thriving business is a new development in a country that is largely lawless.
In the Baghdad neighbourhood of Mansour, gun shops have been opening since a law was passed last August allowing citizens to own and carry handguns, semi-automatic rifles and other assault weapons after obtaining official authorisation.
“The mechanism for buying weapons has been carefully studied and abides by the rules of the Interior Ministry,” says Abu Sajjad, a salesman in the Nisr al Sahara (desert eagle) gun shop who asked to be identified by his nickname.
“The sale cannot be concluded before the client obtains an official permit from the Ministry of Interior. He should be above 25, must have a clear criminal record and no suspected links to terrorism or criminal gangs,” Abu Sajjad said.
Many of his clients are wealthy businessmen or tradesmen who seek weapons for self-defence and to protect their businesses.
“The biggest demand is for individual handguns, specifically the Croatian HS, in addition to hunting rifles and semi-automatic weapons. Women also use weapons, which they keep in their handbags for their personal security. The matter is not restricted to men only. Everybody needs to feel safe,” Abu Sajjad said.
Law 51 allowing legal arms possession in Iraq came into effect last summer. The authorities said it was aimed at curbing illegal weapons sales and increasing control of gun ownership through regulation.
“It is true that the wide spread of weapons possession will have an effect on the security conditions in the country necessitating more government control regulations. Nonetheless, licensing gun shops where people can get arms in a legitimate way will help curb illegal sales,” Abu Sajjad added.
After the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the illegal weapons trade flourished across the country. Looted guns from ransacked police stations and military bases were sold in streets and public areas. Previously, gun sales were restricted to firearms for hunting and sport.
Pistol prices in Abu Sajjad’s shop range from $1,000 to $5,000, while hunting rifles and Kalashnikov assault rifles can be bought for as little as $600 to up to $6,000, depending on the brand and manufacturing origin, he said.
One of Abu Sajjad’s clients who asked to be identified as Adel said he decided to buy a personal gun and weapons for his employees after receiving threats targeting his car shop in the Baghdad neighbourhood of al-Nahda.
“It is a risky business and we often encounter people who try to blackmail us or threaten our families. The state is unable to protect us from gangs that are operating freely without any deterrence or punishment,” Adel said.
He said he bought several licensed weapons that he and his employees always carry.
Al Maridi market in the heart of Madinat al Sadr, a Shia-inhabited district of Baghdad, is considered a hub for all types of illegal weapons, both light and heavy. It is not the only place where illegal arms are available. Other popular and low-income districts controlled by tribal leaders have their own weapons markets. The authorities are seemingly incapable of raiding these markets, which are protected by religious parties and their armed militias.
Iraqi sociologist Ali Taher Hammoud blasted the government’s decision to allow legal arms possession and sale as “a wrong and unfortunate move.”
“By doing that, the government conceded to the street at the expense of enforcing the law. Gun culture is a big problem in Iraq and the mentality of using weapons to settle disagreements has torn apart the social fabric,” Hammoud said.
“This law is a step backward. Ensuring security is the duty of the state and not the duty of the regular and harmless citizen who is trying to protect himself,” Hammoud said. “There are 750,000 security members in the country who are trained to enforce law and security. Moreover, the government can hire the services of security companies which are licensed, properly trained and disciplined.”
“Arms should be exclusively restricted to the state’s security forces. The wide spread of weapons will be an additional reason for the armed militias to jeopardise security under the cover of legitimate licensing,” Hammoud added.
Passers-by who stop in front of Abu Sajjad’s shop window are often amazed by the arsenal on display.
“One reason for the lack of security and stability is the prevalence of weapons, which are used to resolve the many problems plaguing the Iraqi society,” said 26-year-old Ahmad Sami as he pointed to the gun shop.
“How on earth could the government allow people to carry weapons when it is supposed to curb it in view of the problems and encroachment on security that take place daily? This is unacceptable in a country where the rule of law is so weak,” Sami added.
Oumayma Omar, based in Baghdad, is a contributor to the Culture and Society sections of The Arab Weekly.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.