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Gun sales in Iraq a result of looting, for both buyers and sellers

MOSUL, Iraq—The Iraqi army may have crumbled, but its weapons are still around.

They're all over a traffic island on the street that runs in front of this fractious northern Iraqi city's wholesale vegetable market: pistols and shotguns, Kalashnikovs and rifles, even bayonets. The stolen booty of abandoned military warehouses, the weapons are all for sale, dirt cheap, to a population still rattled by the chaos that followed the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime last month.

"We're all afraid of the looting," said Ghanim Mohammed, 27, brandishing a military pistol he purchased for around $150. "We're upset and angry. But if they try to do it again, we'll take revenge."

Mohammed wasn't alone. The impromptu gun show recently drew scores of men to the cramped patch of grass on the traffic island. Several dozen newly established dealers displayed guns and ammunition to the shoppers, who jostled with one another to inspect the merchandise.

"People want to guard themselves at night. They're concerned about their lives," said another man, stuffing three boxes of high-caliber cartridges into a black plastic bag.

Behind him, Mahmud Mohammed Mutern showed a Kalashnikov he had for sale for $50. A postwar glut has driven the price of the semiautomatic weapon below that of nearly every other gun, but Mutern said he's glad to have an income.

"It's good money," said Mutern, a former soldier who said he's been buying and selling guns for the past few weeks. "Once the disorder started, I started doing this."

Mutern said he owes his good business mainly to the sense of personal insecurity among residents of this city of 1.8 million, a onetime Baath Party stronghold whose population is divided between Arabs and a sizeable minority of Kurds and Turkmen. People on the streets don't openly carry guns, but many keep them at home for protection.

"It's not only for fear of looting but also if someone has done something in the past, killed someone else, they're afraid someone will take revenge," Mutern said.

Most of the buyers were Arabs, and many said their purchases were intended to deter Kurdish peshmerga fighters whom they blame for an orgy of looting when Saddam's control ended.

Even before then, Iraq was a country of well-armed private citizens. Gun stores were required to be licensed, and sales of assault weapons and other heavy armaments were prohibited.

U.S. Army Col. Joe Anderson, the brigade commander in charge of U.S. forces in the city, said American control of Iraq has not ended the right to own weapons.

"We told them if you have them at home, you can keep them. It's a protection issue," he said.

However, Anderson said that the freedom to sell weapons extends only to licensed gun shops. He said American patrols bust one or two open-air gun markets a day, arresting sellers and confiscating their weapons.

The threat didn't seem to bother Mutern. "The Americans confiscate some, but once they go away, people start selling again," he said.

Anderson acknowledged that stamping out illegal sales would be hard.

Bashar Ismail Samak, the owner of one of Mosul's nine official gun stores said he had "no business, none."

Samak pointed to a framed license, dated 2001, on his shop wall. Under the law, he could sell to buyers who were at least 25 years old, and he had to register their address and the weapon, he said.

Before the war Samak said business was up. "People knew there would be looting afterwards," he said. Since hostilities ended, however, consumers have had cheaper and less cumbersome options than Samak, who said he still maintains records of purchasers.

Samak said he wasn't much impressed with the new vendors. "It could be any person who sold a few guns," he said. "They don't know anything about the weapons or their qualities."

As Samak absentmindedly played with a row of bullets on his shop counter on a warm Mosul afternoon, a group of teenagers sauntered into the shop. They were looking for ammunition for an old English hunting rifle they said a friend had given them. Samak didn't have any, so the teens left, leaving the store empty once again.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+GUNMARKET