- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2003

SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq War has brought some collateral damage to the gun-happy culture of Iraq's Kurdish ethnic minority.

The fall of Saddam Hussein, the presence of nervous American forces and a government crackdown on illegal weapons in Sulaymaniyah have helped introduce a new concept to a people used to casually slinging Kalashnikovs over their shoulders: gun control.

"Now that the war is over, we don't need weapons anymore," says Raza Hamid Qarib, a 34-year-old trying to sell a Chinese-made Kalashnikov rifle he took from Iraqi troops during the 1991 uprising against Saddam. "We need freedom instead."

Just days after the April 10 collapse of Baghdad's authority in northern Iraq, the Sulaymaniyah-based autonomous Kurdish government declared all buying and selling of weapons in the city illegal. The breakdown of Saddam's regime and the collapse of his army had brought an influx of weapons and dangerous characters into the bazaar, prompting citizen concern and an angry reaction against the omnipresent firearms.

"We'd received so many complaints, that we shut the gun market down," said Sarkawt Kuba, a high-level police official. "We'll let them sell guns somewhere else, outside of the city."

Even licensed dealers had their permits revoked. Gun dealers in the informal gun bazaar within the labyrinths of the main Sulaymaniyah bazaar said police several days ago arrested some gun dealers, confiscated their inventories and ordered them to appear before trial.

"You're supposed to hand your weapons in to the government," said Mr. Qarib.

The ever-growing presence of American troops here has also put a clamp on gun culture. U.S. forces patrolling northern Iraqi cities have set up checkpoints on key roadways to look for guns. At a checkpoint on the road between Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk, young, fresh-faced American soldiers of the Army's 173rd Airborne division stop vehicles and inquire about guns.

Ordinary Kurds are now trying make a profit off the restrictions.

Though a bent old man, Haji Ahmad Abdul Qader fancies himself an able gunslinger. Standing in a shadowy corner of the Sulaymaniyah bazaar, he pulls out a handgun. But it's not a stick-up. It's a deal.

For just $35, Mr. Qader wants to sell a finely crafted Canadian revolver.

Still, old habits die hard in Iraq, which has a tribally based gun culture and a long obsession with weaponry. Checkpoints have not stopped random gunfire punctuating the night in cities such as Mosul and Kirkuk. Nor have checkpoints around cities halted gunplay between Arab tribesman and Kurdish bandits on the long, unguarded roads through the desolate countryside.

But the U.S. presence and the Kurdish crackdown have convinced marginally law-abiding citizens such as Mr. Qarib to pare down their weapons. "Guns have become a hassle," he said.

The sharp drop in gun prices offers some evidence of success in reducing the local taste for firearms.

Before the war, standard-issue Kalashnikovs sold for $400 apiece and were scarcely available in the gun bazaar, established in 1991 immediately following the establishment of the Kurdish autonomous enclave in the north of Iraq. Last week, they were selling for a little more than $100, and there were no buyers.

Mr. Qader, wearing the traditional baggy pants and colorful cummerbund of the Kurdish peshmerga warrior, complained that he couldn't sell his Canadian revolver, despite the low price. "It's old quality, an original," he said.

Ahmad Mohammed tried to sell a near-new Iraqi Tariq 7.65 mm pistol. "The prices are collapsing," he said. "The day before yesterday, a Tariq went for $250 dollars. Today, it's selling for $175."

The government crackdown on the gun trade has made many dealers nervous and suspicious of strangers, though it hasn't stopped them from carrying on their business.

And though many Kurds say the coming of peace and the end of Saddam's regime mean they do not need guns anymore, it will be hard to change a culture steeped in the myths of war and martyrdom. Mr. Qarib, the young man selling a Kalashnikov, admitted he kept another one at home.

"That one's not for sale," he said.


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