Surrounded by Chaos in Iraq, Middle Class Takes Up Arms

Times Staff Writer

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.

Licensed dealers, whose prices are generally higher than in the cutthroat milieu of the bazaars, are now feeling pinched by their illicit competition -- and are wondering whether they will be able to continue to operate once an interim Iraqi government is in place.

They also grumble that the U.S. authorities seem to have trouble distinguishing between legitimate businesses and the bazaars that deal in stolen weapons.

“Some of them came here, and I showed them all the papers to show that my guns are not stolen, but they didn’t have anyone with them who could read the documents,” said gun merchant Eymad Chalabi, who has done business for five years out of the same downtown storefront.

“I was afraid they were going to confiscate everything, but in the end they brought someone who could explain to them that I could show proof of purchase on all my stock.”

One byproduct of Hussein’s feared security apparatus was that street crime was almost unheard of. Now, many Baghdad residents talk of little but their newfound sense of insecurity.

Widow Rose Razafian, 70, whose husband was a bank executive, lives in a well-appointed house shaded by palm trees.

She has hired an armed watchman and keeps a generator roaring away all night to keep the outside lights on and deter thieves.

Before she goes to shop for bread for breakfast, she takes off her jewelry and then carries only the $2 or $3 she intends to spend.

“We never felt this way before. There is no one in charge, no government,” she said. “You hear gunfire all night long, there are looters everywhere you turn -- it makes us frightened.”

Even some of those doing well in the nascent weapons economy are taken aback by the degree of violence associated with it. Ali, the car-trunk gun dealer, named several weapons bazaars in poorer districts of the capital that he said he would be afraid to frequent, either as a seller or a buyer.

“Even we don’t dare to go to some of these places,” he said.

In some quarters, U.S. efforts to crack down on gun merchants are meeting with solid approval. Rafid Soudani, a 34-year-old father of three, looked on approvingly as U.S. troops from the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment arrested a gun dealer who had been doing business on his doorstep.

“How can I raise a family here?” Soudani said. “It went on at all hours of the night, people buying guns and then firing them off to show they work. Crazy.


But the soldiers acknowledged that they could contain only a fraction of the illegal trade.

“We just can’t keep up with it,” 1st Lt. Travis Shain of Killeen, Texas, said as two Iraqis were cuffed with plastic ties and loaded into a Humvee in the wake of the U.S. raid.

Some Iraqis were determined to take the long view, even while acknowledging a sense of fear and uncertainty.

“Change is good for us, for every Iraqi,” said Abdul Kamal Din, a mathematics professor who keeps a rifle in the house. “But our future still isn’t clear. And it can’t be, because there’s no feeling of safety.”