/ 18 December 2006

Baghdad’s weapons traders making a killing

Sporting a beige jacket, starched pink shirt and polished shoes, Haider looks like any other young businessman about town, not a sly gunrunner who wheels and deals in Iraq’s burgeoning arms trade.

Yet with the country sucked into sectarian warfare and the classic laws of the marketplace clicking into gear, traders like Haider — not his real name — are making a highly illegal killing.

He admits prices have “quadrupled since spring” after the fuse on Iraq’s sectarian powder keg was lit by Sunni extremists, who demolished a revered Shi’ite shrine in the northern city of Samarra.

“Sales have shot up spectacularly since Samarra,” explains Haider.

The blast plunged Iraq into a vicious cycle of bloodletting between Sunni and Shi’ite fighters that litters the country with 100 bodies a day.

“Shi’ites went on the attack and asked for weapons. Sunni groups also wanted to arm. Shi’ite militias and armed Sunni groups are the main buyers,” says the unrepentant wholesaler.

In today’s thriving market, a basic Kalashnikov assault rifle retails for $200 to $350 while an upgraded version with a folding stock or a sniper scope can fetch up to $400 to $600.

Russian-made PKM light machine guns, which are highly prized by Iraqi insurgents, can command $3 000 to $4 000 apiece.

Such prices have plotted a formidable upsurge in the nearly four years since United States-led troops invaded Iraq to bring down former president Saddam Hussein.

“In Baghdad, fences used to attract clients with jingles like ‘settle your scores for 250 dinars [35 cents]’,” jokes Mohammed, another gun merchant from a neighbourhood of southern Baghdad.

“They sold stocks of army grenades on the pavement, and to prove they worked they could chuck them behind a wall on open land,” he laughs.

Gunrunner Ahmed Hassan says dealers today deal in smuggled goods from neighbouring Iran and Syria, which the US accuses of meddling in Iraq, and from US-trained Iraqi forces looking to supplement their income.

“There are two sources,” he says. “Smuggled goods, particularly from Iran, but also a small number from Syria. And the army and Iraqi police who sell their weapons, particularly ammunition.”

“Police officers are badly paid. So after a battle they can sell their bullets and tell their superiors they’ve run out of ammunition or even sell their weapon and say they lost it,” concurs Mohammed.

According to Hassan, one officer even offered to dismount a machine gun from the bracket on the back of his jeep and sell it for $3 000.

Haider says Shi’ites — the dominant sectarian group in Iraq’s security forces — monopolise arms trafficking and accuses even senior officers of turning over weapons and ammunition to make a fast buck.

Yet, while the sectarian divide threatens to tear Iraq apart, hard cash is a powerful leveller and weapons dealers work together to maximise sales.

Haider, who is Sunni, uses a Shi’ite associate to trade on his behalf in Sadr City, a sprawling Baghdad slum home to about 2,5-million Shi’ites and several thousand armed fighters from the prominent militia, the Mahdi Army.

“Personally, I don’t keep weapons at home. The Americans search homes regularly. They don’t set foot in Sadr City. Shi’ites can stock up,” says Haider, who claims not to sell explosives or heavy weaponry such as RPGs and mortars.

“It’s too dangerous,” he said, adding with a smirk: “But if you want IEDs [bombs] to attack the Americans, I can get them for you.”

Finding weapons is not a problem, but moving them around can be expensive.

“There are checkpoints everywhere. You don’t know who’s in charge but generally $100 gets you through without a search,” says Haider.

Shadowed by a bodyguard, he tries to minimise his risk of capture or worse, refusing to stray into neighbourhoods he does not know and trying to sell only to people with whom he has connections.

“I’m running the risk of 15 years in prison or worse,” admits Haider, nonetheless refusing to take personal blame for fuelling daily massacres.

“My mother urges me to stop, but the problem is the other way round. The day when violence stops, there won’t be a market. Then I could sell watches. I have Rolexes and Breitlings. Do you want one?” — AFP