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Illegal Dealers Provide Abundant Arms for Iraqis - 2003-12-23

For the past six months, U.S. troops in Iraq have found themselves under attack by insurgents believed to be remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime. There is ample supply of weapons for them on the black market - an old Iraqi institution.

Iraq has a gun culture. Everyone appears to have a weapon.

The Russian-made AK-47 assault rifle is nearly everywhere. VOA reporters have seen them in the hands of children as young as 12, and in the home of at least one well-respected religious leader.

Baghdad has many dealers willing to meet the demand for guns. The trade is illegal, as it was under Saddam Hussein, but it has a long history in Iraq, and the arms smugglers and weapons dealers are accustomed to evading authorities.

Sitting in the living room of his Baghdad home, surrounded by his many small children, one black market arms dealer spoke to VOA about the business he has been in for the past 12 years. He does not want his real name used and asked to be called, simply, Aws. He says Iraqis have always loved guns.

Aws says, in every Iraqi house, you could find a pistol or an AK-47. But after the fall of the regime, people have even more guns, maybe four AK-47s and a couple of pistols in every house. He says, that is what encourages people to settle their disputes with guns and pushes crime up.

Before the war, Aws says Iraqi troops massed for the defense of Baghdad and stashed huge arms caches in schools and government buildings. But instead of fighting, when the American troops rolled into town, the Iraqi army fled, leaving their weapons behind.

Those arms stashes were looted within days, and everything ended up on the black market.

Aws says he has been in this business since 1991. The difference between now and the old regime, he says, is that under Saddam, the supplies were limited, but now he can deal in all kinds of weapons. He said there were maybe 50 dealers in Baghdad under Saddam. Now there are hundreds or even thousands of them.

Some of the new items on the market, he says, are rocket-propelled grenades, which sell for less than $60. People can also readily buy mortars, rockets, explosives, machine guns, you name it.

Aws said that, although he does not deal in heavy weapons himself, he noticed after the fall of Saddam that people had started buying large amounts of heavy stuff, like mortars and rockets, hundreds of them. He thinks they were preparing for the insurgency.

The Coalition Provisional Authority and the U.S. military are trying to crack down on the black market arms trade.

Several times a week, coalition officials announce the number of weapons and rounds of ammunition seized in raids around the country. Some private security consultants say they have, at times, had trouble finding ammunition, and they think it is due in part to coalition efforts to shut down the black market trade.

Coalition spokesman Dan Senor would not give too many details when asked how successful he thinks the coalition has been.

"On the arms trade, we are taking a number of steps, most of which I do not want to disclose right now, publicly," he said. "But we are taking a number of steps to clamp down on the black market trade of weapons, and weapons caches that are left unguarded around the country. We recognize that it is a problem and it is one that we have focused on."

But Aws and other arms dealers in Baghdad say they have been smuggling weapons and ammunition for a very long time, and know how to hide them well enough to avoid capture.

But he says that the risk of arrest is one reason he chooses not to deal in heavier weapons such as mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. The other reason, he said, is moral, he does not want to help anyone kill innocent people.

But Aws thinks the U.S. military and coalition leaders do not really understand the Iraqi gun culture. He said everyone here keeps a pistol or a rifle for protection, and confiscating those weapons is not going to stop the insurgency.

He said that he does not think Iraq is ever going to be a gun-free country, because it has so many weapons - large and small.

Aws believes the only thing that would convince Iraqis to voluntarily put down their guns would be increasing security so people can feel safe in their homes and cars. Until then, he thinks Iraqis will stay well-armed.