Gun-Loving Kurds Mull Controls

Iraqi Kurds’ conflicted relationship with firearms laid bare in recent election.

Gun-Loving Kurds Mull Controls

Iraqi Kurds’ conflicted relationship with firearms laid bare in recent election.

Weapons loudly welcomed the outcome of Iraqi Kurdistan’s latest political contest, and may even discreetly have helped determine it.

In the run-up to last month’s election, politicians gifted guns to prominent supporters. When the results were announced, celebratory gunfire streaked the night skies.

Opposition leaders said the weapons had been dished out to buy votes. Their rivals denied this, arguing that they were honouring Kurdish loyalists with a traditional gift.

Kurdistan’s fondness for firearms is a legacy of battles against Saddam Hussein’s troops and among rival internal Kurdish parties.

“Guns are in our blood,” said Guevara Khalil, a young man from Erbil whose family fought Saddam. “Given the choice, a child here will always take a plastic gun as his toy instead of a ball.”

The July 25 election highlighted the Kurds’ increasingly awkward bond with the gun. The tense vote took place amid fears of an armed confrontation between rival supporters.

Yet most of the gunshot casualties in the region’s hospitals were the unintended victims of falling rounds, fired skywards in celebration.

Among dozens of people injured in the densely populated cities of Erbil and Sulaimaniyah, many had gone outdoors simply to escape the summer heat.

Hashim Jamil died after being struck in the chest by a round on July 26, one night after the election. The 47-year-old father of three had been standing at his doorstep watching the celebrations.

“This is chaos - we don’t know who killed him,” Jamil’s brother, Qarani, said. “The government should ban such celebrations for good.”

Guns were once essential in a region wracked by feuds and surrounded by enemies. But in the last six years, the three provinces that make up Kurdistan have grown safer, especially compared to the rest of Iraq. The weapon that was vital for the Kurds’ survival is now seen by some as a dangerous relic.

Dalia Bakhtiyar, a 22-year-old woman studying in a Sulaimaniyah technical college, said she was alarmed at how many people still owned guns. “Celebrating by firing into the air is not fashionable any more – it is uncivilised,” she said.

Most families in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region have access to a firearm. Though gun shops are illegal, weapons and accessories are freely available on a thriving black market. Cheap Turkish-made pistols can be bought for 300 US dollars, while a second-hand Kalashnikov rifle will typically cost around 200 US dollars.

On the election campaign trail, the parties that administer Kurdistan made fresh promises to curb the rampant gun culture. Barham Salih, a candidate for prime minister from the governing coalition, pledged tighter gun controls.

However, his colleagues from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, also appreciated the gun’s value as a gift. Senior PUK officials publicly gave influential supporters pistols in the weeks preceding the election.

Sadi Pira, a member of the party’s politburo, said the gifts were not part of the campaign. “We did this before, during and after the elections. It is a suitable present for those who struggled,” he said, using a term typically used to describe Kurdish guerilla fighters or active party members.

A Kurdish opposition group, Change, says the distribution of guns by Iraqi president and PUK chief Jalal Talabani is among several violations it plans to cite in a court case attacking the election’s legitimacy.

Tensions ran high around the July 25 vote, which saw Change emerge as a potent opposition force, unprecedented in Iraqi Kurdish politics.

In Sulaimaniyah province –a battleground between Change and the traditionally dominant PUK – police officers spoke openly of the danger of armed clashes breaking out between rival supporters. Yet fears of major election-related violence never materialised.

Salar Basira, a humanities professor at Sulaimaniyah University, said giving out guns in such a climate promoted a culture of impunity. “The government can do nothing with party members who carry guns,” he said.

The PUK’s Kurdistani list coalition insisted the guns it had gifted were meant to be kept at home. “Those who attempt to use them illegally will be punished,” spokeswoman Sozan Shahab said.

Local laws forbid carrying a gun without a license. However, many Kurds said they believed a membership card for one of the major political parties could effectively double up as a weapons permit.

In Sulaimaniyah’s Azadi Park, a gated area popular with picnicking families, a guard named Miran Karim said he only asked “regular people” to hand over their firearms.

“Party members and government officials are allowed to carry weapons,” he said.

For the vast majority of Kurds who do not receive guns from political parties, the black market remains a reliable alternative.

Mohammed Omary, a schoolteacher and part-time journalist from the town of Penjwen in Sulaimaniyah province, said he carried a gun because he did not trust the security forces. “Many political parties threaten journalists,” he said.

Mohammed Karimi, a weapons dealer in Sulaimaniyah, told IWPR sales had boomed before the elections. “I sold more pistols in this month than at any time since 2003,” he said, referring to the period of the US-led invasion of Iraq.

As well as enforcing the rules on owning weapons, Kurdish authorities hoping to tackle the gun culture would have to reduce their availability on the black market.

Until recently, however, the market has served not only civilians but also reportedly some members of the security forces whose units did not supply them with weapons.

A sergeant in the Asayish, an elite Kurdish security force, said most of his colleagues had purchased their own weapons. “We don’t receive guns like the police force. Only a few of us guarding the main offices get issued with rifles,” he said, asking not to be identified.

Tariq Rasheed, general director of the region’s interior ministry, said the Kurdish authorities could afford to arm only their police force until 2003. Other branches such as the Asayish or the peshmerga militia had to buy their own guns, he said.

However, he said, the Kurdish administration now provides all the weapons needed by its security forces. According to Rasheed, the regional government is considering plans to open licensed gun shops in order to squeeze out the black market.

“The situation here is much better now than it was in 1991. Back then, Kurdistan was not so different to Afghanistan under the Taleban,” he said. “But the rest of Iraq is still the way Kurdistan was then.”

Asked whether he deemed firearms to be a threat to Kurdistan’s internal security, he said, “Guns in the hands of our people are not as dangerous as suicide bombers.”

This story was reported from Sulaimaniyah by IWPR-trained journalist Falah Najim and from Erbil by IWPR Iraq editor Neil Arun and editorial staffer Nabaz Jalal. IWPR-trained journalists Najeeba Mohammed and Pishtiwan Jamal also contributed to this story from Erbil and Sulaimaniyah.
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