Wanted in Iraq: a programme of weapons cleansing

Ayub Nuri
24 June 2003

Iraq, even before Saddam Hussein, has always been a place for weapons. The whole world came to know how the recently-deposed dictator was using the country’s oil revenue to buy weapons to fortify his regime. Year after year, he acquired more weapons with which to pursue the Kurds, fight the Iranian regime and track down his many enemies within.

Sooner or later these weapons would find their Iraqi victims. While the heavy weapons were usually confined to the army, the small arms – AK-47, G3, RBK, BKC – were more widely distributed.

We are awash with kalashnikovs in Iraq: Russian, Libyan, Chinese and Cuban. Bought by the Iraqi regime for the army, they soon found their way into other forms of employment. In the early 1980s, the Iraqi regime began recruiting local Kurds into a neighbourhood force to fight the Kurdish fighters on the mountains alongside the main Iraqi army.

Kurds willing to join up for this were christened jash, which means a little donkey (too young to carry loads) – a mark of disrespect by Kurds opposed to the Iraqi regime and secretly loyal to the peshmerga guerrillas in the mountains.

Jash leaders were called mustashar (“chancellor”) in Arabic by their men, but they were renamed mishka shar (“city mouse”) by their critics. The latter did not single out the jash because of their co-operation with the Iraqi regime alone, but because they were using the guns they were given to break into the house of non-jash civilians and strip them of their possessions, often maiming or killing the occupants in the process.

When people went to the police to lodge a complaint and ask for protection, they were told by the authorities, “Protect yourself and your family by registering your name to get a gun from one of the Chancellors”. This was a clear message to the effect that everybody had to join the jash army.

A spreading danger

The distribution of arms went far wider than the Kurdish areas, of course. The Arab tribes in central and southern parts of the country were armed by the regime, with the aim of equipping them to be a protector in the event of any uprising or war. Millions of kalashnikovs and pistols of all kinds were distributed to millions of Iraqi Arabs as well as Kurds. All of these weapons remained in the hands of the people: they were neither used to fight for the Saddam Hussein regime nor returned to the owner!

Several wars and uprisings have taken place in Iraq in the last generation. There were the Kurdish rebellions in the 1970s and 1980s, the wars with Kuwait and Iran, the uprisings in the south in 1991, the civil war between Kurdish factions in the north, and of course the latest American-led war. The accumulating result has been to import more and more weapons into the country, many of which also fell into the hands of civilians.

These weapons have often been used for revenge or score-settling whenever family or tribal troubles arose. During and after the liberation of 2003, many Arabs and Kurds near Kirkuk and even Mosul were killed. Iraqi soldiers who surrendered to civilians in various towns left their guns in return for safe passage. In every town of Iraq a special market in guns could be seen, employing thousands of people.

In the Tikrit military hospital the coalition forces found around 50,000 kalashnikovs hidden there by the Iraqi army during the war. I went there the same day that American troops began shifting the boxes out and witnessed this scene. In a school in Kirkuk, I saw thousands of mortar, tank and RBG shells in big green boxes.

What happens when so many weapons coincide with the kind of instability and insecurity into which the Iraqi regime plunged the country for so long? Every family in Iraq has at least one weapon in its possession. As well as this, thousands of unexploded bombs, hand grenades, shells and gun powder have left their lethal trail across the country. People’s lives are at risk from radioactivity, or the sudden explosion of shells. Children play with whatever they find, fiddling with any piece of metal in the street. Weapons have become part of the Iraqi way of life – and of death.

What to do?

The time has surely arrived for wholesale disarmament – a weapons cleansing programme throughout the country. But who among us could do it? No Iraqi political or non-political grouping could ever achieve it, as anybody reluctant to hand over his gun will be able to resist anyone trying to disarm him. At the same time, nepotism plays a big part in the failure or slowness of local disarmament efforts. Nobody in Iraq is ready to disarm his friend or relative even if he is ordered to do so, and that has always been one of the problems in Iraq.

Yesterday, it took me about five hours to decide to pack my bag with a laptop computer and go to the internet café ten minutes away from my hotel. A number of friends advised me strongly against venturing out with it, for fear of the many gangsters who may attack me.

People throughout the country are sick and tired of weapons. Instead of guns in their streets, homes and offices, people want to see computers, internet cafés, sophisticated communication devices, good roads alongside true security and stability. And now at last, the coalition forces have finally launched the first, real, urgent disarmament process in Iraq, in both the north and the south of the country.

Some may argue that while crime levels remain so high, removing that deterrent will make criminals utterly fearless. That is a false argument. In fact, as long as there are so many weapons around, the criminals can bury themselves and their weapons among the crowd.

The coalition forces have started the disarmament process. In my view, every Iraqi needs to understand that this is of real value to our country. After all, many shopkeepers in Baghdad still refuse to open their shops, or close really early, for fear of the armed gangs who will descend on them and steal everything. In short, everybody must come forward and help find every single last weapon he or she knows about – whether it belongs to his or her own friend, relative or neighbour. We have to report the whereabouts of even a single bullet, so that we can have a country clean of guns – the objects that have been killing us for many years.

Let everybody join hands to help a disarmament programme, one that includes the smallest explosive material. Only when free of guns will Iraq have a future.

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