Iraq's Illegal Arms Sales Boom While Security Remains Elusive

The illegal sale of firearms in Iraq is still booming, fueled by sectarian feuding and the neighboring Syrian conflict, Ali As-Saray reports.

al-monitor Policewomen practise assembling and disassembling Kalashnikov automatic rifles during training at a police academy in Kerbala, 80 km (50 miles) southwest of Baghdad, April 27, 2011. Photo by REUTERS/Mushtaq Muhammed.

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weapons, syrian crisis, sunni-shia conflict, shiite, sectarianism, muqtada al-sadr, iraqi politics, iraq, free syrian army, corruption

Oct 17, 2012

What has ignited the arms market in Iraq since last August? While a Kalashnikov rifle sells for $2000, the price of a BKC rifle has reached $3000.

Iraqi security sources told Al-Hayat that arms sales have dropped in central and southern Iraq since the end of September, after some Shiite fatwas [religious edicts] forbidding the sales of weapons were issued.

However, the task of “keeping firearms in the hands of the state” and its accompanying slogan: “[Working] hand in hand ... [to keep] weapons out of the hands,” began to raise doubts. 

Four years after the Battle of Basra [code-named Saulat al-Fursan, meaning Operation Charge of the Knights in Arabic] in 2008 — which saw the influx of large quantities of war supplies and weaponry — nobody in Iraq can envision a “land free” of killing machines.

The group that received these weapons — in several phases — is still a mystery for the authorities.

In general, the Shiite fatwas were issued as a result of fears based on the assumption that these weapons will find their way to the Syrian opposition.

However, security sources said — as another assumption — that Iraqi militant groups located in northern Baghdad acquired the weapons from the south. This is more like a scheme among different Iraqi factions to transport weapons from one group to another. Later on, the armed and violent attacks — which took place in September in Kirkuk, Mosul, Diyala and Baghdad — proved that the second assumption was closer to reality.

Where did these weapons come from, and how were they transported?

Tribes and intermediaries

In Nasiriyah (in the south), police forces had tightened their grip at the entrance of the city, after arms sales increased in the beginning of August. A source close to the arms deals said: “Intermediaries bring weapons from the tribes located in the outskirts of the city and sell them to unknown clients.”

Iraqi tribes obtained significant amounts of light and heavy weaponry from military warehouses, which the Iraqi army left behind following the US invasion. Later on, the authorities found it difficult to take weapons away from individuals. The situation worsened when the US civilian administrator dissolved the Iraqi army. Its soldiers sold off the war equipment that they had, and it later found its way to various parties and groups.

As for how the arms were moved, the source said: “The shipments were brought by minibuses and passed through military checkpoints.”

However, there was no information regarding the parties that received the arms. 

Military and police forces have taken intensive security measures on the roads linking the provinces. It seems that it is hard to confirm that these weapons passed through checkpoints.

A police officer told Al-Hayat that “We have been told that the situation is very dangerous. … Arms are moving towards the north.”

He said that the beginning of August was very disturbing and that military leaders on the ground did not hide their concerns about news regarding arms sales and purchases. The officer didn’t deny that “religious fatwas have led to a decline in the arms market.”

Nonetheless, Iraqi authorities were unsure of the effectiveness of the security plans. Since Aug. 10, they have been sending official delegations to visit tribal councils, in an attempt to cut off the market’s primary source of funding.

The delegates tried to convince the tribal leaders that these weapons — which are being sold at exorbitant prices — could lead to the formation of an Iraqi army that is similar to the Free Syrian Army.

The Sadr Movement and other Shiite forces have adopted this idea and predicted that arms purchased from central and southern Iraq in August would be the first step in forming an Islamist army in Iraq.

Shiite political forces in Iraq believe that the border with Syria is large and uncontrollable. Moreover, residents of areas adjacent to the border want to provide assistance to the rebels there. For this reason, they have stored weapons.

However, some indicators do not prove this assumption. On Aug. 20, security sources in the Diyala province, which borders Iran, said that security services noted high rates of weapons purchases. It seems that the weapons supplies of armed groups in these areas have declined.

Moreover, official statements show that large weapons stockpiles resulted from raids and searches carried out [in the area]. This may be one of the reasons that citizens in the south are buying additional weapons, in order to compensate for their losses.

Weapons for a sectarian war

Regardless of where the weapons are heading — whether it be to Syria or somewhere inside Iraq — the fact that weapons sales have suddenly skyrocketed reveals that arms are proliferating outside the hands of the state. 

The Iraqi government, in a controversial decision take in May 2011, allowed for “the possession of one weapon for each household” and required “it to be registered at a police station.”

There is a law regulating the acquisition of firearms in Iraq. The law that was issued in 1992 banned Iraqis from carrying, trading in and even fixing any war materiel without a license. The law stipulates that the minimum punishment for violators is seven years in prison or a fine.

In the Iraqi civil war (2005-06), the authorities encouraged citizens to surrender their weapons. Dozens volunteered to do so in exchange for financial rewards. However, they later backed out of doing so, because they felt that the cycle of violence in the country had not yet stopped.

According to a political source from the city of Najaf (in the south), arms sales have somewhat decreased in southern Iraq, against a backdrop of the Shiites’ fear to remain unarmed after having sold their weaponry to Sunni groups.

The same applied to Sunni areas. They store their weapons in traditional hiding places, away from the eyes of the government. An Iraqi army officer told Al-Hayat that the seizing of weapons occurred routinely.

Possessing weapons is not a new thing for the Iraqis. However, nowadays the phenomenon is taking on a political and ethnic character, showing that Iraqi groups are losing trust in one another. In this case, weapons ensure  life and represent an effective tool to guarantee the survival of the fittest.

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