The war in Iraq has caused shortages of some goods—like gasoline—in Iraqi Kurdistan. But one commodity is in ample supply.
Weapons. And the Islamic State militant group’s advance across northwestern Iraq keeps demand high, too.
In the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah, it’s not hard to find military-grade weaponry. At an unassuming store front in Suli—as residents call the city —the only indication of what’s inside is a few hunting rifles and shotguns in the windows.
The shop has a white tile floor, two counters with a center access hatch and two safes on the wall. Behind the counter are six American made M-16 rifles, four M-4s and several Kalashnikovs.
Weapons hang on the walls and in display cases. Practically any small-arm you can imagine is available for purchase. Kalashnikovs of all variants, a British Sterling submachine gun, German MP5 and MP5K submachine guns, a 61 Skorpion machine pistol and a wide array of handguns, shotguns and hunting rifles.
They’re all just sitting there, unlocked.
The shop is busy, a steady flow of customers coming in and out—some to buy, some to browse. A man inspects a Glock 19, trying its weight in his hand. Another buys 10 M-16 magazines and a rifle sling.
The merchandise ranges in condition from brand new to heavily used. All of the shop’s M-16s and M-4s seem to be in good condition. The presence of Arabic numerals on the butts of two of the rifles hints at previous owners.
The shop owner agrees to talk under the conditions of anonymity and that we don’t take any pictures of him.
He’s vague about the origins of his guns.
He explains that most of the guns belonged to the Iraqi army at some point, but he usually purchases them from civilians.
Prices have risen. Two years ago a Kalashnikov would have cost around $300. Now the average price is $600.
The government is the only customer for the heavy rounds—.50-caliber, for instance.
He says he sold around 50 Kalashnikovs last month, often to Peshmerga going off to fight the Islamic State. Business is brisk.
An old man sitting nearby turns a Romanian Kalashnikov over and over in his hands looking for defects. He strips it down before placing it on the counter. The staff wraps it in a trash bag as the customer leaves to retrieve his money.
“Before ISIS you didn’t find many guns and bullets, now people bring them to me to sell.”
An American M-16A2 assault rifle fetches $2,700. An American M-4 carbine goes for $6,000.
But in Suli, people prefer familiar Russian weapons. While American 5.56-millimeter rounds cost 50 cents each, the more popular Soviet 7.62-millimeter ammunition sells for 75 cents.
In addition to civilians, the gun vendor frequently deals with the Peshmerga militia, Asayish intelligence officers and police forces. He explains that the government issues them ammunition, but sometimes they want more.
The manager says he’s been selling guns legally—with a license—for two years. Before that, he was an unlicensed dealer.
“When it comes to civilians, I sell to people I know,” he says. “No Arabs.”
To buy a gun here, customers need a license—unless they are with the Asayish, Peshmerga or police. But farther west—closer to militant-controlled territory—the rules are more lax.
The Kirkuk gun market is by the side of a road. Vendors sell their weapons on the pavement outside a chaikhana—a tea shop.
Some display their wares on upturned boxes, others walk around with one or two rifles hanging over their shoulders. Still others lean several Kalashnikovs against a wall. Sellers and buyers bustle about.
One gun merchant shows off his wares. He has eight Kalashnikov variants leaning against a wall outside the tea shop.
As he talks, it’s hard not to notice how hyper-vigilant he is. He spends most of our interview glancing around. Tensions run high in the gun market.
He sells AK-47s for $700. M-16s go for $3000, but he says these ones are only for the Peshmerga. A Chinese Type 56—a Vietnam-era AK-47 copy—is $1,000. An AKMS—a modernized AK-47 with a folding stock—is $2,000.
He has an M-4 carbine with holographic sight and forward grip for $9,000.
This gun market is only for Kurds. Sometimes the Peshmerga come to exchange their existing guns for better versions. Villagers with homes near the front line often come here to buy weapons, as well.
“The rules here are different,” the dealer explains. “In Irbil and Sulaymaniyah civilians buying weapons need to have a license issued by the Asayish. When they buy a gun the shop owner must get their name, take a picture of the buyer and tell the Asayish. Here we have different rules because of ISIS.”
Elsewhere in the market, a Glock 19 costs $2,500. A Croation HS2000 chambered for .45 ACP rounds is worth $2,400. A Tariq pistol—the Iraqi Iraqi copy of the Beretta M1951 — is $1,200.
There’s also an antique revolver of unknown origin. The vendor didn’t have ammo for it, but he does offer to sell it for a special discounted price of $100.
“When the civil war in Syria started, the price of Kalashnikovs rose to $1,500,” another vendor explains. “Now the price is $700 because of all the Iraqi army guns that we have.”
When the Iraqi army abandoned its bases, dealers grabbed some of the weapons the soldiers left behind. Supply dramatically increased.
Demand comes in waves. When Islamic State took the town of Makhmur, the price of Kalashnikovs went up. In fact, any time militants gain ground, prices spike.
The gun market has had to move around for its own protection.
In early July, there was a suicide bombing. An Arab man walked into the area. When an Asayish officer challenged him, the bomber detonated his explosives, killing two Asayish officers and three civilians and wounding nine others.
People in the gun market blame a TV crew for filming two days prior to the attack. But another local man quietly points out later that most people suspect the attack may have targeted the Asayish station near the market rather than the market itself.
There are some heavy weapons here. A BKC—an Iraqi clone of the Soviet PKM machine gun—goes for $5,000. One dealer says an RPG-7 launcher and rocket together cost just $200.
But the vendors stress that the heavy stuff is only for the Peshmerga and the Asayish.
Many dealers in Kirkuk also reserve American weapons like M-16s and M-4s for the Kurdish security forces.
But American weapons are plentiful. One dealer explains that the Islamic State’s weapon of choice is a captured Iraqi army M-16.