by MATT CETTI-ROBERTS
Kurdish gunsmith Bakhtiar Aziz holds up an M-16A4 assault rifle inside his dimly-lit workshop. The weapon smells like death.
The rifle has holes in its upper receiver — damage from a coalition air strike. Its barrel has a large chunk missing, and there’s human hair lodged in its parts.
The Kurdish Peshmerga found the weapon on the front line against Islamic State near the town of Gwer, following a coalition air strike on a jihadist position. A Peshmerga fighter brought it to Bakhtiar’s shop in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil.
The rifle is a grim reminder of the war against Islamic State, and it’s symbolic of one of the conflict’s bizarre twists.
“The Americans gave it to the Iraqi army, then when ISIS came, they took it from the Iraqi army,” Bakhtiar tells War Is Boring. “Now after the American air strikes against ISIS, the weapon is in the hands of the Peshmerga.”
His shop isn’t much more than a basement under Erbil’s central bazaar. Its only fittings are a work bench, a chair and some tools. Shotguns and air rifles line the walls. He even owns some ancient-looking muskets.
Before Islamic State swept into Iraq, Bakhtiar’s business mostly focused on repairing hunting weapons. He had run the family business since 1987, when he took over from his father during the reign of Saddam Hussein.
The work was a lot different then.
“Because of the Iraqi regime, there was a lot of security,” Bakhtiar says. “If someone came to the shop for repairs, you would have to write his name, the serial number and where he worked.”
But Bakhtiar tells us that subversive activities still went on inside. His father secretly repaired weapons for the Peshmerga — the Kurdish fighting group which Saddam brutally repressed.
Eventually, the clandestine gunsmithing landed his father in trouble. “The Iraqi regime caught him and put him in prison,” Bakhtiar says.
His father was released from the infamous Abu Ghraib prison after the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. Until Saddam’s ouster, “we were only allowed to repair weapons for the mercenaries,” he adds.
Meaning Kurdish fighters working for Saddam.
Bakhtiar’s business changed dramatically after Islamic State’s invasion. After the jihadists blitzed into Iraq and seized Mosul, the Peshmerga’s fighters suddenly found themselves fighting for their lives along a 1,000-kilometer front line that appeared almost overnight.
He now repairs weapons for the Peshmerga and Asayesh — a Kurdish intelligence and security agency — for free. Bakhtiar considers the work to be his contribution to the war effort.
“Often I will work ’till 11 p.m. because too many people come,” he says. “They bring their weapons and say that they’re in a hurry — ‘We have to go back to the front line. Please, can you fix this quickly?’”
Earlier in the day, the Peshmerga called and asked him to repair a broken DShK heavy machine gun at an Asayesh base near the town of Gwer.
House calls are normal for the gunsmith. But for this particular job, he had to visit the front line. Because of Gwer’s strategic position, some of the heaviest fighting in northern Iraq has centered around it. The town is close to several oil fields, and it’s just 48 kilometers from Erbil.
“After firing around 20 bullets, ISIS answered by shelling us with mortars,” he recalls. “Two or three fell near us.”
He says Islamic State mostly uses Russian weapons, such as the Kalashnikov. But the jihadists have a few American guns, too. The militant group captured most of them from the Iraqi army.
The Kurds are in a somewhat similar situation. They have a lot of spare parts for Kalashnikov-type weapons, but few parts for American-made M-16 and AR-15 rifles. The United States introduced small arms into Iraq more than a decade ago, but Russian weapons like the AK-47 have been there a lot longer.
“The weapons I see the most are Russian,” Bakhtiar adds. “They were all made in the 1950s, like the machine guns. Eighty-five percent of the weapons are from Russia.”
He acknowledges that the ex-Soviet rifle is less accurate than its U.S.-made counterparts, but he still prefers the Kalashnikov. “The parts are very cheap and it is easily repaired,” he says. “It is a very practical weapon.”
He’s seen a lot of captured weapons, too. “Sometimes after air strikes, [Islamic State] leaves DShKs, artillery and mortars behind.”
When the Iraqi army in Mosul melted away, its soldiers left behind millions of dollars worth of weapons and hardware. The Sunni insurgents captured modern rifles, armored vehicles, tanks and even helicopters.
Islamic State now uses these weapons against the Peshmerga — who at first only had vintage Warsaw Pact weapons. Even then, the Kurds had to make deals with corrupt Iraqi army officers to keep the guns maintained. This began to change with a surge of foreign aid to Kurdish forces.
“You can’t compare the Peshmerga’s weapons with ISIS’s weapons,” Bakhtiar says. “ISIS has weapons from two countries — Iraq and Syria. They have very big, heavy weapons, but the Peshmerga doesn’t have the same equipment.”
The gunsmith doesn’t just handle repairs. By using cheap Chinese parts, he can create a weapon that a Peshmerga fighter will be happy with. He holds up what outwardly appears to be an M-4 carbine. Looking closer, one can see “M-16A4” stamped on the side of the magazine housing.
The M-4 is a shorter, lighter version of the M-16. The Peshmerga prefers light-weight rifles, he says. Bakhtiar will take an M-16, change the stock and hand-guard, and then shorten the barrel to make something approximating an M-4.
This particular example is a chop-shop job for a Peshmerga fighter. He doesn’t know where the fighter found the weapon, and he didn’t ask.
Converting M-16s into M-4s is something Bakhtiar does on customer request. The going rate for an M-4 in Kurdistan is around $4,000 to $6,000 — double that of an M-16. The price is higher during periods of heavy fighting.
Behind the counter, two of his personal projects hang on the wall. The first one is a modified Russian PPSh-41 submachine gun, which can spew dozens of bullets in seconds. The weapon’s stamp dates it to 1945 — a World War II antique.
Bakhtiar attached a pistol grip in front of the gun’s drum-barrel magazine, creating a forward grip. This PPSh-41 also once had a folding stock, but he removed it.
At a distance, the second weapon looks like an AKS-74U. It’s certainly a Kalashnikov … of some kind. “But I turned it into something smaller,” Bakhtiar says. “It uses pistol bullets.”
Specifically, he modified it to use the 7.62 x 25-millimeter Tokarev round. He turns the weapon over with his hands, removes the thin magazine before cocking and then dry-fires it. Click. The weapon works.
These guns aren’t for sale. He built them — and a Simonov SKS carbine with a jury-rigged telescopic sight — for himself. It’s a labor of love.
“I will not sell these, even if someone paid me $10,000. I keep them for myself, to decorate the shop.”
Bakhtiar stands behind the counter after stripping down the damaged ex-American, ex-Iraqi, ex-Islamic State M-16A4 rifle. The weapon still smells like death.
He pulls out a drill with a grinding attachment and starts to smooth away the rough burrs — to make the weapon serviceable. The drill whines as he concentrates on the task at hand.
As he works on the weapon, Bakhtiar reflects on his contribution to the war.
“This is how I help my country against ISIS,” he says. “But even if they needed me to go and fight, I am ready to fight ISIS.”
“If ISIS were to take Kurdistan, they would try to take the rest of the world. They are a global danger — not just for Kurdistan.”
Even though the war effort has brought new and varied business to his gun shop, Bakhtiar says his craft is one that will never go away. “My business will not stop, even if the war with ISIS ends,” he says. “I repair weapons for the police, the Asayesh, the Peshmerga, everyone, not just for the Peshmerga on the front lines.”
“Weapons always get broken,” he says with a sanguine smile. “That’s why I have to repair them.”