By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA
BAGHDAD - Saadoun al-Sahil already had an AK-47 assault rifle at home but just didn't feel safe. The furniture merchant was worried about violence in Baghdad and the impending U.S. withdrawal of troops. So he bought two pistols and some more ammunition.
Iraqis are facing a changing and uncertain future, and they're dealing with it by arming up.
"These weapons are for the protection of myself and my family. I fear that things will get as worse as it was in 2005 and 2006. We cannot predict what will happen tomorrow or after tomorrow," said al-Sahil.
Weapons are an everyday part of the Iraqi landscape. Nearly every home has at least one weapon, often an AK-47 assault rifle. At many buildings, residents and bodyguards can be seen checking their pistols with security before they're allowed to go inside. Political figures are protected by bodyguards often carrying a pistol and an assault rifle.
Only people with certain jobs or positions that might make them need a weapon are allowed to legally own them and only with a license. Jewelry store owners who often find themselves attacked or doctors who are targeted for kidnapping can apply for a license.
For years following the 2003 invasion, the Iraqi government followed the basic policy of allowing one gun per household. Iraq military units searching a house would often tell people that if they had one weapon it was OK, but additional weapons would be confiscated.
But the top military spokesman in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, said authorities were now moving away from that unofficial policy and had recently started a campaign to disarm Iraqi cities.
But that's not stopping the stockpiling of guns and ammo.
A senior official in Iraq's military intelligence department said in recent months illegal arms sales have jumped, specifically AK-47 assault rifles and pistols.
The AK-47 assault rifle is ubiquitous in Iraq and much of the world. The weapon was designed in the Soviet Union back in the 40s. But its durability, low cost and relative ease of use mean it has been mass produced and used by armed forces and insurgent groups around the world.
Another government intelligence official said in April Iraqi officials noticed a 15 percent increase in weapons sales overall and a 20 percent increase in the purchase and sale of AK-47s alone. The officials said they based their information on weapons seizures and information learned through operations and arrests.
The official, who did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the buyers are purchasing for different reasons. The clients are a combination of individuals looking to protect their families and organized groups like militias worried about what the future might hold.
Sunnis are worried about the return of Shiite militias and the rise of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Al-Sadr, has threatened to unleash his militia called the Mahdi Army if American forces stay past their Dec. 31 departure date.
The Mahdi Army was accused of some of the worst atrocities during Iraq's sectarian violence, and the prospect of its return is enough to scare even the most hardened of Baghdad's residents.
Shiites are worried about the return of former Baath Party loyalists who fled to Yemen and Syria after the 2003 invasion. As those countries slip into chaos, the worry is that they might return to Iraq, the official said.
One weapons smuggler who spoke to The Associated Press from his luxurious newly built house in eastern Baghdad where chandeliers and elaborate furniture decorated the reception room, said the market increases during times of political crises.
"For example when Muqtada threatened to unfreeze the Mahdi Army, that increased the demand for buying weapons. Up until now, the demand for weapons is really big. The withdrawal of the Americans is making people demand weapons," said the dealer. He would only identify himself as Abu Ali because he was worried about protecting himself and his business.
Most of the weapons he sells, especially the newer ones, are smuggled into the country although he would not identify the smuggling routes or say which countries he imports from. He said he also sells Glock pistols that were distributed by the American military to the Iraqi army and police but later ended up on the black market.
The weapons trade isn't as obvious as it was in years past. In 2003, weapons were sold openly in markets across Iraq, even heavy weapons like mortar rounds and tubes. Millions of pieces of equipment went missing after the fall of Saddam's government and the Iraqi army was disbanded. Much of it ended up on the black market and the hands of insurgents.
The dealer said that the weapons are being sold nowadays through secret deals nationwide, adding that he usually tours Iraq's provinces to buy weapons and send them to the buyers. He refused to divulge more details.
But even though the weapons trade has gone underground, everyone knows where to make their purchases, al-Sahil said.
"It is not that difficult to buy weapons and ammunition. Every weapons merchant would recommend another if he does not have what the customers are demanding," he said.
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