After a decade of building, Kurds are now in a state of suspended animation.
Sulaimania, Iraq – Under the local mosque minaret in Sulaimania’s old city, on a street lined with wooden carts topped with carrots, radishes and parsley, Kurdish men in traditional dress amble in and out of gun shops.
Kamal Mahmood, 36, who has been selling arms on Sulaimania’s streets for more than a decade, told Al Jazeera that demand among the Kurdish civilian population has ballooned after the June 2014 fall of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, to fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
“Business today is booming,” he said. “Since the emergence of ISIL, there has been a rapid increase in the purchase of weapons. When people saw how barbaric ISIL was – beheading, killing women, children, and the elderly – everyone got the idea to have weapons in the house to protect themselves against the ISIL fighters.”
Our dreams are dreams of freedom, and that's why people in this country tend to have guns.
“In every home in Kurdistan, you can find a gun. We are a repressed but resilient people; we have always wanted our freedom. Our dreams are dreams of freedom, and that’s why people in this country tend to have guns.”
On a stifling Friday morning with the call to prayer reverberating through the streets of Sulaimania’s old city, men of all ages wander in and out of the small gun shops, raising rifles to their cheeks and squinting down the barrels. A few inspect handguns and even landmines.
The variety of weapons stocked in the shops date from conflicts past and present, said Pieter Wezeman, who researches conventional arms flows throughout the Middle East for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
“The collection you see there has built up over a long time and may include weapons that were supplied to Saddam Hussein’s regime, which, of course, have over the past year – and especially after 2003 – got lost or have dispersed throughout society,” Wezeman told Al Jazeera.
The Iraqi army was “not prepared to take on stockpiles” that were rapidly supplied by the United States, Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in an attempt to rebuild an army after Saddam’s was disbanded in 2003, Wezeman said.
“The Iraqi army didn’t know how to secure [stockpiles],” he said. “They didn’t have the means to secure them, and often enough … there were many Iraqi soldiers, [who] for different reasons, wouldn’t want to secure them.”
Leading up to, and after ISIL’s takeover of Mosul, business was good, but since the beginning of the summer, Mahmood says there has been a decline in sales. He blamed it on the increased cost of living in the region, which many Kurds attribute to the influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and displaced Iraqis into the northern Kurdish region.
Mahmood said he would sell “without hesitation” to Yazidis, Christians or foreign fighters aiding the Kurds in their fight against ISIL.
Members of the Kurdish Peshmerga, including foreign fighters, have been among the most frequent customers at the gun markets in Sulaimania, Mahmood and other vendors said.
One shop owner estimated at least 20 percent of his clientele were members of the Kurdish military force. Peshmerga, who receive a 25 percent discount at some shops, supplement their issued equipment with their own salaries, the vendors said.
Russian and Chinese AK-47s, which were standard issue in the Iraqi army under Saddam, are the cheapest and most popular weapons among the Peshmerga, selling for $450 a piece, vendors said. M16s, issued to the Iraqi army by the US via Iraq’s interim government, are also plentiful and popular, but cost around $2,500.
Western governments supporting Kurdish and Iraqi factions in the fight against ISIL have been hesitant to arm the Kurds, fearing that stockpiles intended for the Peshmerga may fall into the wrong hands, as what happened with US-supplied arms to the post-Saddam Iraqi army, Wezeman said.
Only a few Western governments – Germany, France, Britain, Italy and the Czech Republic – have directly supplied weapons to the Kurdish Peshmerga. Along with a wide array of military hardware, including helmets, socks and binoculars, the German military delivered 20,000 of the G3 model rifles between 2014 and 2015.
Among the inventory of weapons on display in Sulaimania‘s market, Al Jazeera reporters saw models of the G3 rifle. Some observers have raised concerns that weapon stockpiles issued to Kurdish factions may become dispersed among the civilian population after distribution.
Vendors told Al Jazeera the Peshmerga’s preferred weapon is the AK-47 and not the G3, and they regularly sell and exchange weapons issued to them.
Robert Habermann, a major in the German military, told Al Jazeera that the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) signs an end-user certificate for arms supplied by the German government, an undertaking that ensures the weapons are used for the intended purpose: to combat ISIL.
“We do not have any knowledge about whether the government of northern Iraq’s Kurdistan region has deviated from that signed agreement,” he said. “On the other hand, it cannot be excluded that weapons were left during and after fighting and taken by other persons or groups.”
Habermann said the German G3 rifle was exported to many countries and the German G3 model is produced in at least 15 countries. There are estimated to be around seven-million G3 rifles worldwide, he said.
Peshmerga spokesperson Jabar Yawar said the international community should continue to supply small arms to the Peshmerga, noting any fighter suspected of selling or exchanging internationally issued weapons would be tried in a military court.
“The Ministry of Peshmerga has laws to prosecute soldiers, and they should be punished if they sell or exchange their weapons. If anyone tries, they will be sent to the military courts and prosecuted,” Yawar told Al Jazeera, noting the ministry was not aware of any reports that the Peshmerga have been patronising gun shops in Sulaimania.
Meanwhile, back at the gun shop, Mahmood says he hopes his son will not inherit his profession.
“I don’t want my son to sell guns,” he said. “I want him to be a free person.”