Fearful Iraqis scrambling to buy weapons

By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 31, 2010; A8

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."

Customers came into his shop with dollar bills, and Kobaissi sent them away.

"There's no money here," he told them.

In July, four gunmen robbed him and held him at gunpoint. Eighteen days later, they came to his home and stole what was left. Behind them they had parked a car that exploded, killing three police officers and wounding seven.

Kobaissi bought a pistol and an AK-47 assault rifle.

"America didn't leave democracy. They left thieves," he said as he wept inside his shuttered store.

For Kobaissi and the Shaker family, the hope is that weapons will deter the next attack. But their weapons are illegal.

The Interior Ministry, which oversees police and security issues, stopped issuing weapons licenses more than a year ago, and it is illegal for anyone to have a weapon without a license. But Iraqis still buy weapons from black-market dealers. Men train their wives to use the guns in case of emergency, and they hope it will be enough.

Local police largely look the other way, in spite of Interior Ministry orders.

"The number of personal weapons in a country like Iraq are too high right now, even though the Ministry of Interior is not issuing new licenses," said a statement from the Interior Ministry's general inspector's office.

In Fallujah, Abu Omar, a weapons dealer, has raised his prices because demand is so high.

"Security forces aren't doing their jobs properly and so people are trying to find means to protect themselves," he said, using a nickname to protect his identity. "There's no government, and armed groups are increasing their attacks."

In Baghdad, the Shakers still reel from their loss. They thought life would be better after the end of the sectarian violence that ravaged their neighborhood from 2005 to 2007.

Taif Shaker, whose first name means dream in Iraqi slang, was the baby in the family. On Aug. 20, he was stabbed at least 17 times during a home invasion.

Mariam Shaker, Taif's sister, was in the room when her 17-year-old brother was slain. The attackers slammed her into a wall and left her unconscious.

Every night she reads the Koran. She rarely speaks.

Her face is pale and she shakes with fear. When she does speak, it is to reenact that night, mimicking her brother's last words.

"Mariam, you have to scream to save me," he told her.

When his mother, Suheila Hassan, looked at a picture of the handsome boy, who had worked odd jobs to pay for nice clothes, she broke down.

"Bring me my son Taif," she wailed. "Bring him to me."

"Please stop," her son Muntather Shaker begged her. "I told him to protect the women when we were gone. He did. He died a hero."

Hassan's mood turned to anger, at both the nation's politicians and the U.S. forces. "Oh, God, I swear it is forbidden what they did to Iraq," she said. "They destroyed us, they destroyed us."

Shaker pulled out his pistol.

"After what happened," he said, "I don't trust anyone."

Special correspondents Aziz Alwan, Jinan Hussein, Marwan Ani and Uthman al-Mokhtar contributed to this report.

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