Anything from an AK-47 to hard drugs is available in broad daylight for knockdown prices.
 

Since the US-led invasion last year, the occupation authorities have overseen a burgeoning black market in the capital and a creeping criminalisation of Iraqi society.

 

Gangs now terrorise the city's residents in a spree of robberies and kidnappings.

 

And it seems the Iraqi police and their US bosses are either unwilling or unable to do much about it.

 

Ra'id, from north Baghdad, told Aljazeera.net the black market in illegal weapons and drugs was blatant.

 

"You can easily buy whatever weapons you want," he said.

 

"It's also possible to buy most drugs – especially hashish and medicinal drugs you would normally need a doctor's prescription for."

 

Guns and drugs

 

Ra'id said Mraidi market in the predominantly Shia Muslim district of al-Sadr City is renowned for selling weapons and drugs, as well as fake IDs and driving licences.

 

Al-Ummah park in central Baghdad, and the Shulah and Abu Ghraib districts are other notorious haunts where black marketeers ply their trade.

 

Al-Ummah park is a notorious
haunt for black marketeers

Go-betweens - often children - approach would-be customers at these rendezvous points and then a deal is done in a nearby hotel or house.

 

But the customer had better be serious about buying otherwise he runs the risk of being attacked or even killed.

 

According to Raid, the black market in weapons and drugs existed during the Saddam Hussein years, but it was negligible because of the difficulty in getting hold of weapons and selling them.

 

There were also very stiff penalties for black market activities - including death.

 

Yet, after the US-led invasion last April, countless weapons were looted from army stores under the eyes of the occupation forces.

 

It is suspected that many arms fell into the hands of the tens of thousands of hardened criminals Saddam Hussein released from prison on the eve of the war.

 

Crime epidemic

 

Meanwhile, experts say the influx of hard and soft drugs has flooded in through the porous border with Iran. But Iraq's influential religious establishment has tried to stem the use of hard drugs by condemning them.

 

"The people selling are normally Iraqis from poor regions," said Ra'id. "Most don't have jobs and are illiterate. They don't have anything to do with their time so they turn to this business."

 

Many Iraqis say they carry arms 
for personal protection

However, the wide availability of weapons is sparking a crime epidemic across Iraq.

 

Many Iraqis continue to flout new laws banning them from carrying automatic weapons and handguns.

 

There is a gun-toting wild west atmosphere in the country and ordinary people say these weapons are for their personal protection.

 

However, it is clear that others use them for highway robbery or attacks on occupation personnel.

 

Iraqi newspapers are also full of stories about children being abducted at gunpoint outside schools. Kidnappers then trade the children for money or property.

 

Rampant unemployment

 

Dr Abd Al-Sattar Jawad from Baghdad University said rampant unemployment and inflation made participation in the underground economy attractive for many Iraqis.

 

"It's now common to see drugs sold in the streets and drug addicts walking around," he said.

 

Millions of Iraqis are struggling in
desperate circumstances

 "When the US came they simply let the criminals and the thieves get their hands on all this stuff. But this is backfiring on them now in a big way. They aren't doing enough - there aren't enough policemen on the streets."

 

He added: "The Americans said they would build a stable and democratic Iraq but if they let this situation continue, everyone will know these were hollow words."

 

Aljazeera.net contacted the Iraqi police and the occupation authorities to comment on Baghdad's black market, but both were unavailable.

 

However, both say they are cracking down on high-profile crime operations such as big open-air illegal weapons bazaars.

 

Hard-pressed police

 

And Ra'id believes they are having some degree of success.

 

"After the invasion, weapons were sold on every street in Iraq and they were very cheap. You could get an AK-47 for only $15 and a grenade for 25 cents.

 

Security personnel fear entering
lawless areas of al-Sadr City

"Now, it is more difficult - you can only buy through friends and contacts. But you can still get an AK-47 for around $70 and a grenade for $2 and drugs for as little as 33 cents. White powder (cocaine) is available but only in very small quantities."

 

But critics say the authorities have only tackled the tip of the iceberg.

 

West Baghdad resident, Athir, who has also bought illegal goods on the black market, said it was common knowledge the police lack manpower.

 

"They are afraid of going to places like al-Sadr City because they know that they will get killed," he said.

 

"Since the Americans came, there is no law anymore in Iraq. Our religious obligations towards each other and our sense of national identity is the only thing that is holding this nation together and preventing us from killing each other."