Baghdad, Iraq – “We haven’t worked like this since the Iran-Iraq war,” said Abu Mohammad, a 60-year-old tailor who has spent more than 45 years making army uniforms. “We used to make three uniforms a day. Now we make 35 or 40.”
Soon after Sunni fighters led by the Islamic State group, formally known as ISIL, took over the northern city of Mosul on June 10, Abu Mohammad saw a spike in the demand for the army and police uniforms he produces at his factory in Baghdad’s Zaramly Market.
Sales rocketed when Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shia leader, called on “all able-bodied Iraqis” to take up arms against Islamic State. Thousands of young, mostly Shia men headed to recruitment centres to volunteer for service in the national army and loyalist militias – and they all needed uniforms. Abu Mohammad said making the clothes is his response to Sistani’s call to arms.
As demand has soared, so have prices. A single uniform once sold for about $40, but the price has now gone up to $60. Meanwhile, the factory’s income has gone up to $900 a day.
“The cloth merchants are the ones causing hardship,” said Abu Mohammad, who employs six other staff members. “I didn’t raise the price I charge for my work, but they have tripled the price of khaki cloth. A square metre used to be $4, now it’s gone up to $12.”
But Abu Mohammad said he endures threats from armed men who visit his workshop. On Wednesday, unidentified gunmen set off a bomb outside a row of shops selling military clothes, not far from the workshop. But here and in 15 other uniform factories on nearby streets, work carries on day and night.
“We make uniforms for various armed forces – desert khakis for the army, blue for the police and black for the special forces,” said Abu Mohammad.
Abu Mohammad said he asks for identification and rank before he will sell uniforms to officers. But he sells other uniforms without ID. “There’s no guarantee they won’t go to militias, but we try to ask them what unit they’re in, or find out other information,” he said.
Adnan Naamah Salman, a former army officer who is now a security analyst, warned of the dangers of selling the clothes to people without proper identification.
|The price of uniforms has gone up to $60 due to increased demand and the cost of cloth [Ridha Al Shammry/Al Jazeera]|
Hamza Ahmed, a soldier in the government’s special forces who was waiting with a colleague in Abu Mohammad’s workshop as their new uniforms were put together, said the arrival of thousands of new recruits had helped save the morale of the army.
“The militias and al-Qaeda have carried out many attacks wearing Iraqi army clothes, which they use to disguise themselves and to guarantee there will be no resistance in the areas that the Iraqi government controls,” he said.
However, he admitted that he would rather fight alongside one professional soldier than five volunteers. “The volunteers are not sent to the really sensitive areas, or to the special units. Their role is limited to supporting the light infantry brigades,” he said.
His colleague, who did not want to be named, added that some army training bases are now facing food shortages because of the influx of volunteers. “We went to the Taji training base [in northern Baghdad] and found crowds of volunteers gathered around a bread oven. Some were taking bread out of the oven before it was ready, risking getting burned, because they were so hungry,” he said.
Not far from Abu Mohammad’s factory, another tailor said his sales had spiked since the events in the north. Hazim al-Shuwaily produces flags bearing the insignia of tribes and military units, as well as Iraq’s national flag.
“Before recent events, sales of Iraqi national flags were quite good, they were the mainstay of our sales list,” he said.
“Army commanders, for example, ordered big Iraqi flags, then the flags of their units in a slightly smaller size. Tribal elders would order big Iraqi flags, and also buy flags with the symbols and colours of their tribes – my Shuwailat tribe, for example, has a red flag with a star and a crescent on it, a little bit like the Turkish flag.”
When law and order breaks down, people seek refuge in other loyalties, such as religion, sect and tribe, in order to find protection, even though that places lots of restrictions on them.
But since the Islamic State group advanced on Mosul, sales of Iraqi national flags have fallen, while sales of tribal flags, in ever-larger sizes, have surged, according to al-Shuwaily. Meanwhile military commanders continue to order the flags of their units, in cloth that can withstand battles and be visible on TV.
Farouq Baban, a political analyst, said this reflected the growing weakness of the state. “Sectarian conflict has played a big role in stirring up tensions between the tribes,” he said.
“Tribal values have become more important, and so have religious loyalties, although they have splintered to the point where the supporters of one cleric from a particular sect fight with followers of a rival cleric from the same sect, and even members of the same tribe fight each other over differences between different arms of the tribe.”
Iraqi historian Saleh al-Khudayri said the breakdown of the state was forcing people to find security elsewhere.
“When law and order breaks down, people seek refuge in other loyalties, such as religion, sect and tribe, in order to find protection, even though that places lots of restrictions on them,” he said.
“History shows that people lean towards creating cantons or smaller groupings in periods when state power is fragmented or weak. During the Mongol invasion, Baghdad split into Sunni and Shia neighbourhoods that constantly fought against each other. Sadly, it seems that the Iraqi political class haven’t read history, which would tell them that destruction awaits societies that don’t respect the rule of law, justice and stability.”