Fearful Iraqis scrambling to buy weapons

By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 31, 2010

BAGHDAD - Four days after his brother was slain in a Baghdad robbery this month, Muntather Shaker borrowed $1,500 and bought a pistol. He carries it in his back pocket, sleeps with it under his pillow and is ready to use it to defend his family.

"If I thought the government could protect me, I would never buy a weapon," he said. "We don't know what will happen when the Americans leave."

Shaker is one of many Iraqis who feel they must depend on themselves for protection now that the U.S. military has drawn down to just under 50,000 troops and will end combat operations Tuesday.

The withdrawing troops have left behind a country with only a tenuous hold on stability: Nearly six months after parliamentary elections, no new government has formed, violence is on the rise and Iraq's security forces are being targeted.

Despite assurances that the United States is not abandoning Iraq, people here are scrambling to prepare themselves. Weapons dealers in Fallujah, Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk said sales of personal-protection weapons are up by 30 to 50 percent in the past four months.

"Especially in the last three weeks, business has picked up," said Abu Fatma, who insisted on using his nickname to protect his illegal weapons-sales business. "People are afraid. It is as if we are returning to 2005."

Two years ago, as violence steadily dropped from the heights of Iraq's sectarian war, Abu Fatma's Baghdad business nearly died. Merchants were selling their weapons back to him. They no longer needed them to protect against assassinations, sectarian attacks and looters, they told him.

But the fear has returned as killings with guns capped with silencers and with "sticky bombs" attached to vehicles are on the rise, according to Iraqi police statistics. Sunni insurgents are escalating their bomb attacks to coincide with the political impasse and the U.S. drawdown.

A suicide bombing this month killed more than 60 Iraqi army applicants. Less than two weeks later, coordinated blasts across the country killed another 60 people. At least three judges were killed and seven wounded in targeted attacks this month. Sunni insurgents have also taken to robbing gold shops, money exchangers and banks to supplement their funding.

In the Borsa market in the western city of Fallujah, heists by Sunni insurgents have caused some merchants to shut down their businesses and forced many to arm themselves.

Violence levels in Fallujah, once the heartland of the Sunni insurgency, had plunged over the past three years. But the fear is back.

"The Americans sit in their bases doing nothing now," money exchanger Razaq Kobaissi said on a recent afternoon in the Borsa market. "The security situation will collapse."

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