Fearing a War, Lebanese Prepare by Buying Up Arms

A gun dealer displays his wares in Beirut, where dealers and buyers say many weapons on the market date from the civil war, and had been stored away. They are now changing hands.
A gun dealer displays his wares in Beirut, where dealers and buyers say many weapons on the market date from the civil war, and had been stored away. They are now changing hands. (By Georges Nassif For The Washington Post)
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[Graph: Fears of renewed sectarian fighting in Lebanon have driven up the prices of guns as people buy them for personal protection. Many arms are left over from Lebanon's civil war.]
By Alia Ibrahim
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 24, 2008

BEIRUT -- Abu Omar, a money changer and father of 11 who lives in Beirut, has bought at least 10 firearms since the beginning of last year. "Everything I can put my hands on and I can afford, I buy. I never sell," he said. "Now is a time for buying arms."

Many Lebanese, increasingly worried about the country's political paralysis devolving into violence, are preparing themselves in the same way. One measure of their anxiety is the price of small arms: An AK-47 that went for $75 to $100 a year ago now costs $600 to $1,000.

Even larger, outdated arms are gaining value, including rocket-propelled grenade launchers that were once considered the "garbage of weapons," said Ghassan Qarhani, a former fighter familiar with the arms market. Today, RPG launchers cost $500, up from $50, he said, noting that they are useful for street warfare.

Political tension has been rising in Lebanon since 2006, when opposition ministers resigned from Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's cabinet. A stalemate between the government, backed by the United States and Europe, and opposition forces led by the Shiite Hezbollah movement, which is allied with Syria and Iran, has rendered parliament unable to pass laws or elect a new president.

Lebanese fought a civil war from 1975 to 1990 that was fueled by strife between Christians and Muslims, but many people now worry more about the potential for conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Although few expect a conflagration on the scale of the last war, many are preparing for the worst.

Despite disarmament accords, many of Lebanon's militia members have retained their weapons. Supporters of newer groups, such as the predominantly Sunni Future Movement, and those loyal to Christian opposition leader Gen. Michel Aoun, appear to be buying weapons now.

Qarhani, who lives in the northern coastal city of Tripoli, estimated that half of the residents in the city's low-income Sunni neighborhoods now have weapons. A couple of years ago, "very, very few were armed," he said.

According to dealers and buyers, most of the weapons on the market date from the civil war and had been stored away. Now they are changing hands.

"There are more arms dealers in this country than there is hair on my head," said Abu Omar, who has long white hair and who refused to be named more precisely out of concern the government would take away his gun licenses.

"I buy from three different sources: a Syrian, a Palestinian and a Shiite from the southern suburb. I call them and tell them what I want, and they bring the pieces to me; sometimes, they call me when they have a special piece," he said.

Most dealers are part-timers who start as aficionados and then transition into trading until they become known for what they do.

"The government knows everything. They know who is buying and they know who is selling, and right now, the policy is to allow people to own guns, as long as they shoot only in the air and not at each other," Qarhani said.

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