Guns in demand as Iraqi seek protection
BAGHDAD, Mar 6: Like most Iraqis, Abu Ali has long kept a Kalashnikov assault rifle hidden in his bedroom.
But it was not until sectarian violence pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war these past two weeks that the 56-year-old engineer thought that one automatic weapon was not enough.
''Danger is everywhere,'' said Ali, a short, stocky man. ''I always had a Kalashnikov at home but after the violence I bought a 9mm pistol. I carry it with me all the time.'' Fearful of sectarian attacks since the bombing of a Shi'ite shrine on February 22, Iraqis are barricading homes and stocking up on weapons in a country already awash with guns.
Under Saddam Hussein, Iraqi households were allowed to own one Kalashnikov, part of a home defence plan during years of wars. After his ousting, looters ransacked barracks, taking with them anything from ammunition to anti-aircraft missiles.
As recent bloodshed has made Iraqis afraid of walking even in their own neighbourhoods, prices for Iraqi-made, easily concealed, 9mm Tariq pistols -- one of the most popular weapons these days -- have soared to up to 600 dollars.
After the U.S. invasion in 2003, Tariqs, used by Iraqi police, went for 0 a piece, Kalashnikov AK-47S for just 50 dollars.
With government employees, for example, making a 125 dollars monthly minimum wage and many Iraqis living on much less, buying a gun is an economic sacrifice. But Baghdad residents on both sides of the sectarian divide say they have little choice.
''My husband had his own pistol and I kept asking him to buy me one,'' said Nidaa Kadum, a 34-year-old high-school teacher.
''He finally bought me one and taught me how to use it to protect myself. If there is a threat I'll shoot into the air so my neighbours can come and help me,'' said Kadum, a Shi'ite.
Thair Ayad, a 42-year-old car dealer, said he bought a Kalashnikov after Shi'ite militias launched reprisal attacks against Sunni mosques in Baghdad.
''I always wanted to protect myself but after the violence that was it. I bought it for a good price: 200 dollars.'' Some Russian-made Kalashnikovs -- as opposed to cheaper Chinese versions -- can go for 350 dollars these days. Though there is formally a system of licensing for gun shops and gun owners, in practice weapons are traded freely in a black market.
Iraq has long had a gun culture, whether it was Saddam's displays of one-handed bravado loosing off his favourite carbine during parades or the night-time spectaculars of tracer fire that still greet every New Year or even national soccer victory.
To get guns off the streets, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi launched a disarmament programme in some areas in 2004.
Prices paid by the government were higher than street value, driving prices up and reducing the flow of arms. But every household is still permitted to own one gun and most do, leaving not a street of the capital lacking in firepower.
''People want guns and bullets,'' said Fares Abid, a 38-year black market dealer of athletic build, wearing a grimy T-shirt.
''If somebody wants a gun, I'll deliver it within the hour.''