BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Like many of his colleagues, Abu Zaid was issued an Austrian-made Glock pistol when he joined the new U.S.-trained and equipped Iraqi police force.
But after narrowly escaping death twice, including being shot at near a polling station in Baghdad during national elections in December 2005, he decided to quit, he said.
“I sold my Glock pistol and my bullet-proof vest for $1,500 so that I can feed my family until I find a safer job. They were mine to sell, after all I had risked my life and faced death,” he told Reuters.
Anecdotal evidence, including interviews with arms dealers, suggests that Abu Zaid is just one of many policemen selling the highly prized pistol on the black market, already a shopper’s delight for buyers with enough cash.
Everything from the ubiquitous AK-47 assault rifle, the biggest-selling item, to rocket-propelled grenade launchers, sniper rifles and belt-fed medium machine guns are available, many looted from huge arms dumps immediately after the 2003 war.
The polymer-framed 9mm Glock, with a capacity of 15 rounds, is popular with police forces and armies around the world because of its ease of use and reliability. It is now also standard issue for Iraq’s 325,000-strong security force.
A 2006 report by the Brookings Institution, a U.S. think tank, said the flow of weapons from the Iraqi forces to the black market and into the hands of militants had left U.S. commanders facing a dilemma.
They had to choose between properly equipping Iraqi security forces and risk seeing the equipment disappear or giving them lower-quality equipment that would “deprive them of the wherewithal to succeed” in combating militants.
“These violations were big and alarming,” Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Reuters. “I am not saying it is still not happening, but it is getting less.”
Nevertheless, the issue is likely to be on U.S. generals’ minds as they build up their forces for a planned offensive in the coming weeks against well-armed militants in Baghdad, epicenter of the violence that threatens all-out civil war.
“Iraqi police and soldiers seize weapons in routine raids and then sell them to weapons dealers,” said Abu Najim, 45, who says he has been an arms dealer for more than 20 years.
“Some policemen also come to me and offer to sell their Glocks, claiming they have some problems and urgently need money. But my customers avoid buying them. It could bring them big problems if U.S. or Iraqi soldiers find them with them.”
With hundreds of people dying violently in sectarian bloodletting every week, many of Baghdad’s residents are arming themselves to protect their homes and their neighborhoods, triggering a surge in gun prices, sometimes 10-fold.
Most seek to buy the AK-47, with the Russian-made model more sought after than the more cheaply made Chinese or Iraqi versions. Where the Russian model with a collapsible stock cost $50 in 2003, buyers can now expect to pay closer to $500.
A rocket propelled grenade launcher can still be bought for as little as $100, but its grenades come at $50 apiece.
Adil al-Qaisi has a secondhand store attached to his home in Baghdad which he uses as a cover for his real business — selling guns. A visit to his shop revealed AK-47s, grenades, ammunition and police-issue body armor hidden in old fridges.
“I bought this from a police officer who quit the police commandos,” he said, picking up a blue flak jacket.
“I have frequent visits from policemen wanting to sell their Glocks, too, but it’s too risky. If security caught me with them they would call me a terrorist.”
U.S. Brigadier General Terry Wolff, who is helping to build the Iraqi army’s logistical capacity, said every weapon issued to Iraqi soldiers and police had to be registered in a database.
“I can’t say where every weapon is, but we have gone back and rebuilt the weapons database,” to include those missed in previous efforts, he said.
The Pentagon said in a report in December that while U.S. trainers tracked how much equipment they had issued to the police, the force lacked the ability to keep a record of them.
With the Iraqi government recently giving Washington a long wish-list of weapons that includes a request for 10,000 more Glocks, U.S. commanders in Iraq could be forgiven for demanding tighter controls before they hand over any more guns.