Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Dodgy Motors for Sale

The Kurdish town of Kalar has become a prime retail outlet for cars stolen across Iraq.
By Zanko Ahmad
Imad Salman is in Kalar because he is looking for his stolen car, and he’s come to the right place – this northern town is where car thieves from all over Iraq arrive to dispose of their hot property.



Salman, 41, was driving his taxi in Baghdad as usual two months ago when his three passengers suddenly produced guns, tied him up and dumped him in an empty alleyway. His livelihood, a 2002 Toyota Sunny that had cost him more than 10,000 US dollars, was gone.



He is less concerned about getting justice than recovering his car.



"It was our only source of income," he said. "If I don’t find my car, I'll have to become a beggar to provide for my family."



The Kurdish-majority town of Kalar, 180 kilometres northeast of Baghdad, has become the retail centre for stolen cars, a trade that is just part of a wider wave of criminality sweeping Iraq.



The authorities have been trying to put a stop to the business but without much success, as the thriving market at Chala Rash, about three km south of Kalar itself, testifies.



Local car salesmen estimate that more than 8,000 stolen vehicles have come into the Kurdish region via Kalar since the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. Unlike other northern cities which have just one entrance at which all vehicles are stopped at checkpoints, Kalar - located on a wide plain with a history of smuggling - can be reached by a number of routes.



The sellers at Chala Rash are both private individuals and professional dealers. They readily admit that stolen cars are available here, although they insist that their own trading involves perfectly legitimate vehicles. If the car is hot, the secret seems to be to shift it at a rockbottom price of a few hundred dollars.



"Since the war and up until now a lot of ‘uluj’ [stolen or looted] cars have been brought into Kurdistan," said dealer Sardar Muhammed. "They go for low prices."



One man, a Kurd who asked not to be named, admitted that he is a professional thief operating in central and southern Iraq and retailing in Kalar.



Mostly he works with two friends to carjack taxis, as part of a 10-member gang of both Kurds and Arabs. Taxi drivers use many different makes of car so the gang has a variety of models to sell on.



This man said he trafficks his cars through the mixed Kurdish-Arab city of Khanaqin nearby, and now has business partners in Kalar itself who sell on his behalf. Although he is from the area, he lives in a city in southern Iraq and makes only occasional visits to the north, out of concern that he will be identified and arrested by police there.



Because taxi drivers are aware that they are prime targets, and no longer pick up all-male groups of passengers in quiet areas, his gang now pays a prostitute to ride along with them.



"If this plan gets found out, we'll just figure out another method," said the car thief.



Vehicle registration rules in Iraq require owners to show proof of identity and documentation such where the vehicle was originally shipped from, so thieves often arrange fake papers and change the license plates - which in Iraqi Kurdistan are larger and different in colour than elsewhere - so that the sale goes smoothly.



Nawshirwan Ahmad, the head of security in Kalar, said police are trying to curb the influx of stolen vehicles, and have arrested some 50 men for involvement in car-theft rings since 2003.



"We have tightened up the checkpoints and issued registration cards for those cars that are already in Kurdistan," he said. "Starting next month, anyone entering Kurdistan with a car that doesn’t have the proper documents will be arrested and interrogated."



Stolen vehicles on sale in Kalar may come with a respray and a set of fake documents - and even a health warning from the dealer - but prospective buyers seem concerned mostly with getting a bargain.



Soran Jamal, 28, does casual jobs in Kalar and admits to having bought several stolen vehicles. He says he is less worried by the police than the prospect of an owner coming looking for his car.



"I know they're stolen, and they often have mechanical problems after I buy them," he said. "But they're cheap."



Zanko Ahmad is an IWPR trainee in Sulaimaniyah.

More IWPR's Global Voices