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Surrounded by Chaos in Iraq, Middle Class Takes Up Arms

Alarmed by a sharp increase in street crime, professionals are joining those who are buying stolen weapons like there's no tomorrow.

May 12, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Hikmat, a retired Iraqi accountant, has a gentle, distracted, scholarly air. And a problem to resolve: Should he get himself a Kalashnikov assault rifle, or go with a Browning 9-millimeter pistol?

"I've pretty much settled on the Kalashnikov," said the balding 67-year-old, who has never owned a gun. "A pistol just isn't enough."

Alarmed by a sharp upsurge in street crime -- brazen daylight robberies, continued looting and the relatively recent phenomenon of violent carjackings -- Baghdad's professional class is rapidly arming itself, drawing on a vast pool of illicit weaponry that has flooded the capital since the fall of Saddam Hussein and his regime.

Hikmat, who did not want his full name made public, said he doesn't like the idea of having a gun in his home but feels he has to be able to defend himself and his family against the city's plague of thieves.

Like half a dozen newly gun-owning members of the middle class interviewed in recent days -- doctors, lawyers, architects and professors -- Hikmat expressed feelings of guilt over contributing to the climate of lawlessness by buying what was undoubtedly a stolen weapon.

But he said he doesn't believe that either the recently reassembled Iraqi police force or U.S. troops can provide citizens with any sense of security.

"When that day comes, I will throw out my Kalashnikov," he said. "But not until then."

The nervous well-to-do are not the only ones purchasing guns in this country where the streets, at least, were safe under Hussein. Ad hoc militias, criminal gangs, ethnic Kurds and rural tribesman also are all on a weapons-buying binge -- a development that is worrying to the U.S. forces that are trying to restore some semblance of order in both the capital and the countryside.

Thriving weapons bazaars have sprung up all over Baghdad, ranging from small, surreptitious knots of dealers operating out of their cars to sprawling, semipermanent markets where the gun merchants helpfully organize themselves by specialty, price range and degree of firepower. Just about everything is on offer, from scope-fitted sniper rifles to rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

No one has tried to publicly estimate the number of light weapons and handguns that have made their way onto the open market -- other than to say that the quantity is enormous, even for a country with an established gun culture.

Weapons stocks at abandoned Iraqi military bases, together with formidable arsenals at neighborhood and district headquarters of Hussein's Baath Party, were picked clean by looters in the days after U.S. troops moved into Baghdad. And that doesn't even include the weapons the Baath Party handed out to residents before the war for their country's defense. Many of these guns are up for grabs.

"This whole country was an armed camp," Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, told reporters last week. "There were weapons and ammunition storage sites everywhere in Iraq."

U.S. troops policing the capital have made weapons seizures a high priority, but it is a Sisyphean task.

A gun dealer who gave his name as Ali, with close-cropped hair and a cigarette drooping from his lips, was doing a brisk business on a recent day in central Baghdad out of the trunk of his beat-up Datsun. Around him, other vendors leaned merchandise against their cars or used old refrigerators as display cases.

"It's very easy to hide -- we see the tanks and Humvees coming, and we do this," he said, closing his trunk as he spotted a small contingent of U.S. troops approaching. "You just have to stay calm and not panic. If you run, they'll catch you."

A gun-market customer, 27-year-old Amer Janabi, said U.S. troops had confiscated his pistol a few days earlier after seeing it stuck in his waistband.

"No problem," he said, fanning out half a dozen $100 bills. "I'm going to buy another. Maybe two."

In the first weeks after the major combat ended, gun prices fluctuated because the sellers, some of them only teenagers, didn't know what they could charge for their wares. The price of a Kalashnikov dipped to as low as $20 before stabilizing at between $50 and $100, depending on its condition, dealers said.

Bullets can be had for as little as a penny apiece.

Although the sheer volume of weaponry for sale these days may be unprecedented, Iraqis are no strangers to gun ownership, particularly in the countryside.

"Guns have been a part of the culture for a long, long time," said Johan Sohlberg of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who is a regional advisor on land-mine clearance. "That didn't begin with the war, and it won't end with it."

During the Hussein years, it wasn't difficult to obtain a gun license, even without any connection to the ruling elite. As privations caused by a dozen years of economic sanctions took hold, the main obstacle for most would-be buyers was the price -- about $150 for the license alone.

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