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

Gun Culture Under Fire

Celebratory gunfire may soon claim as many civilian victims as the war.
By Awadh al-Tae'e

This summer Baghdadi Sayf Shakir was celebrating his brother's wedding. In a drunken state, he borrowed his brother-in-law's Kalashnikov, clicked it to automatic, and started firing into the sky.

But the heavy gun lowered as he shot and bullets ripped through his brother-in-law's liver and left leg. Alaa Abd'al-Latif bled to death in hospital.

Abd'al-Latif is one of thousands of Baghdadis who have been killed from this type of "celebratory" gunfire since the end of the war. People fire off their guns for weddings, funerals, sports victories and often for no reason at all.

"We won't play football on Mondays and Thursdays (traditional wedding days) because of the dense shooting," said soccer player Khalid Ghani.

Some victims die from direct gunfire, but many more from stray bullets. Baghdadis used to sleep on their roofs to catch the night breezes during brutally hot summers. But not this summer.

From July through September alone, 2,175 locals died from celebratory gunfire, according to Dr Faiq Amin Bakir, head of the local health authority's forensics department, which determines causes of death.

In Baghdad Teaching Hospital alone, from July through October, 3,048 weapons-related casualties were admitted. Nearly all were from people shooting randomly into the air.

By comparison, during the war and in its immediate aftermath - March 19 to April 30 - an estimated 3,200 to 4,300 civilians were killed in the whole of Iraq, according to a study conducted by the US-based Project on Defense Alternatives.

"The war is ongoing for us," said Alia Jawad, 23, from her hospital bed, recovering from celebratory shooting injury. She was breastfeeding her 6-month-old daughter when a bullet cut through the roof of her pre-fabricated house, hitting her foot and her baby's head.

The child's condition was unknown as IWPR went to press, but she was not expected to live.

Baghdadis say this trend is related to the war because there were few incidents of it under Saddam Hussein since private weapons were outlawed. But today, many households have guns and many men think nothing of shooting into their air.

"We shoot on occasions of celebration to express our happiness," said a police officer, who did not want to be named, insisting that no one ever intends to hit anybody.

After crushing the 1991 uprising, the former regime imposed a two-day curfew on Baghdad and went house-to-house to confiscate all unlicensed weapons. But in the run up to this latest conflict, they distributed guns to everyone to resist the coalition invasion.

In addition, when thousands of soldiers abandoned their posts during the war, they frequently exchanged their guns for civilian clothes. And thousands more firearms were made available after the fighting when hundreds of weapons depots were looted.

"Guns are around everywhere and there is no proper procedure to search them out," said Major Hassan Abd'al-Karim, deputy head of police in Bayya district in Baghdad.

After the war, the US confiscated firearms at checkpoints but did no house-to-house searches. "The previous regime's procedures for weapons search and seizure were much more effective," he continued.

The penalties were also much more severe. Under the Ba'athists, possession of an unlicensed firearm could result in stiff fine and a year in prison. Today, if the police are involved at all, someone firing an unregistered gun is detained for 3 days and then released. He pays no fine.

In cases of injury or death from celebratory fire, the families involved arbitrate a settlement among themselves.

The family of Sayf Shakir, who killed his brother-in-law, agreed to pay 2 million dinar (about 1000 US dollars) in blood money, and promised that Shakir would provide for the victim's wife and children.

"It traumatises people, especially the children," said civil servant Wathiq Majid, when asked about the often tragic consequences of celebratory fire. "It is a very uncivilised phenomena."

Awadh al-Tae'e is an IWPR trainee.