Erbil, Asharq Al-Awsat—With the insurgents of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) getting closer to the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan, the number of volunteers who want to fight alongside the Kurdish Peshmerga has seen a sharp increase.
Solider need weapons, and as a result the gun market of Erbil, the autonomous region’s capital, has been flourishing.
Asharq Al-Awsat visited the market on Sunday and spoke to dealers and shoppers. Thirty-year-old Mohammad Jamal was one of the former, and agreed to be interviewed while holding two Kalashnikov assault rifles and a bag full of ammunition, surrounded by a group of men haggling over the guns.
Jamal, the son of the owner of the gun and ammunition shop, in a market just 6 miles (10 kilometers) east of Erbil, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “For a few days, and with the clashes nearing the borders of the Erbil governorate, the number of civilians from the area who wanted to buy weapons has increased. Kurdish citizens in Erbil want to buy weapons to protect their families from ISIS if they come any closer to the city. I don’t expect that to happen, but people are preparing to defend their honor and their homeland.”
Jamal added: “The market was quiet before these developments and we were barely selling one piece or two per week, while today I sold around 50 pieces, as well as ammunition and other paraphernalia such as holsters and military binoculars. Trade is very profitable and has compensated for the quiet period.”
Along the length of a dirt track leading to the market, convoys of cars full of shoppers can be seen, and upon entering it is so crowded that shoppers can barely walk straight. In addition to shops full of weapons of all types, there are also casual traders standing at every corner trying to sell their own stocks of weapons.
Sirwan Jabbar, who owns a shop which sells machineguns and handguns, said: “As you can see, the market is very busy, and we became busy as news spread that ISIS were getting closer to Erbil and that clashes erupted between the Peshmerga and the extremist insurgents around 25 miles [40 kilometers] from the city. All customers are civilians who want to buy guns because they no longer had weapons with the improvement of security in the region, and there are youths who buy weapons to volunteer to defend Kurdistan. They buy the weapons and head to the front line to fight ISIS.”
Jabbar revealed that buying weapons from the market requires the buyer to own a firearms license or a permit from the security services or one of the Kurdish political parties.
He added: “Most customers have permits because they have volunteered to support the Peshmerga; therefore, the government provides them with these permits to own firearms. We do not sell arms to any others.”
Sitting behind a desk with pieces of weapons and ammunition laid all over it, Jabbar told Asharq Al-Awsat that prices had risen considerably, more than keeping pace with demand.
“A Kalashnikov machinegun used to cost 700–800 [US] dollars in the past; now it costs 1,500–1,700 dollars if it is in good condition,” he said. “Bullets too were sold for about 1.5 dollars and now they cost 3 dollars each.”
“We look after the youths who go to the front line and give them a discount,” he added.
The Kurdistan Region, which has enjoyed a great deal of autonomy from Baghdad since 1991, was spared much of the chaos that engulfed the rest of the country after the 2003 US-led invasion. As a result, many families in Kurdistan gave up their weapons, leaving many scrambling to re-arm today.
Ranjadar Othman, a young man from Erbil, was going from shop to shop looking for a gun he said he wanted to use to defend Kurdistan.
He said: “I am a laborer and have four children. Today I came to the market to buy a gun and tomorrow I will head to the front line to fight ISIS and support the Peshmerga.”
The living conditions may have been among the reasons why Ranjadar was shopping around for a bargain, with Iraqi Kurdistan experiencing difficult economic conditions caused by sanctions imposed on the region by Baghdad for the last seven months, which has resulted in a stifling recession and the cut in its inhabitants’ purchasing power.
Asharq Al-Awsat accompanied Ranjadar on his shopping trip around the market until he found a suitable gun at a reasonable price.
He said: “I used to have an Iraqi-made Tariq pistol, but a pistol is not suitable to fight on the front, so I sold it for 1,400 dollars because it was old. I will buy this machinegun, and as you can see, the shop owner has knocked 100 dollars off the price because I am going to the front to help the Peshmerga.”
Meanwhile, another Kurdish citizen, Yasin Mohammad, said: “I have weapons at home but I came today with my four brothers to buy them guns. This war is a war to defend Kurdistan and its territory, and we are ready to do that.”
He added: “The US air strikes against ISIS have pleased us, especially that reports said the strikes paralyzed ISIS’ attacking capability. But we still want the honor to defend our territory with our brothers the Peshmerga.”