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

Gun Traders Do Brisk Business

Arms trade has gone underground, but anything from a handgun to a small missile is freely available.
By Muhammed Fawzi

Just after the end of the US-led war in Iraq, anyone could go to Baghdad’s Bab al-Sharji open-air market, and find merchants using the pavement to display their wares – Kalashnikov assault rifles, pistols, and hand grenades.


Elsewhere in the city, gunshots would ring out in the alleyways next to the so-called Thieves’ Market near west Baghdad’s bus station, as young men test fired prospective purchases into the air.


For those buyers interested in more serious firepower – such as an SA-7 anti-aircraft missile or an SPG-9 anti-tank gun – it was always possible to visit the notorious Umreidi market in the slums of Sadr City.


Outwardly, much has changed since the coalition deployed police to put an end to the arms markets, and few traders are to be seen. But the change is only on the surface, and the weapons trade has simply moved underground, where it continues to thrive.


After a period of over-supply, which initially drove the price of a Kalashnikov as low as 25 US dollars, the retail market has picked up and the rifle now sells for as much as 75 dollars. Not surprisingly, the price of other weapons has also rocketed as the trade has become more clandestine.


Buyers say that today’s arms dealers are more likely to work like Abu Hatem – not his real name – whose address at the end of a long, dark alley in a Baghdad suburb can be obtained only by word of mouth.


An elderly army sergeant, Abu Hatem, acquired his wares straight from government sources. When the old regime collapsed, Abu Hatem – who formerly ran a military arsenal – got his brother and son to transfer the weapons to his house.


The network of arsenals and depots set up by the old regime during the war, as well as weapons abandoned by disintegrating units of the Iraqi army, are the source of most of the weapons sold in Iraq today.


Traders say the demand comes from ordinary citizens as well as the myriad forces – militias as well as private security firms, often working for members of the newly-appointed local councils – that have come into being in post-war Iraq.


Even farmers have their weapons of choice, preferring more powerful arms with a longer range, such as the Soviet-made RPK or PKS machine-guns, to protect large tracts of land. Such hard-hitting weapons also are a source of household pride, traders say, particularly in the Sunni triangle.


There is also a fairly lucrative foreign market. Haydar, a merchant from the southern town of Samawa, says he earns his money running guns as well as electrical appliances across the desolate Saudi border.


Speaking in a dirty, crowded coffee shop in the centre of Samawa, Haydar explained that a 9mm pistol which sold for 100-200 dollars in Iraq could fetch 400-500 dollars in Saudi Arabia.


But there are some rules, even in the freewheeling world of illicit arms dealers. Few, for example, will admit to selling any weapons to anti-coalition guerrilla groups.


“The resistance doesn’t need to buy from us as they already made preparations before the war,” said one seller from the western Sunni town of Ramadi, where attacks on US forces are commonplace.


Also, given the tensions in today’s Iraq, certain sectarian groups are reluctant to arm one another. Latif, a Shia trader declares he would never sell to a Wahhabi buyer – a term used by the Shia to refer to any Sunni extremist – at any price.


Muhammed Fawzi is a trainee journalist with IWPR in Iraq.