By C. J. CHIVERS
SULAIMANIYA, Iraq, Dec. 8 — The Kurdish security contractor placed the black plastic box on the table. Inside was a new Glock 19, one of the 9-millimeter pistols that the United States issued by the tens of thousands to the Iraqi Army and police.
This pistol was no longer in the custody of the Iraqi Army or police. It had been stolen or sold, and it found its way to an open-air grocery stand that does a lively black-market business in police and infantry arms. The contractor bought it there.
He displayed other purchases, including a short-barreled Kalashnikov assault rifle with a collapsible stock that makes it easy to conceal under a coat or fire from a car. “I bought this for $450 last year,” he said of the rifle. “Now it costs $650. The prices keep going up.”
The market for this American-issued pistol and the ubiquitous assault rifle illustrated how fear, mismanagement and malfeasance are shaping the small-arms market in Iraq.
Weapon prices are soaring along with an expanding sectarian war, as more buyers push prices several times higher than those that existed at the time of the American-led invasion nearly four years ago. Rising prices, in turn, have encouraged an insidious form of Iraqi corruption — the migration of army and police weapons from Iraqi state armories to black-market sales.
All manner of infantry arms, from rocket-propelled grenade launchers to weathered and dented Kalashnikovs, have circulated within Iraq for decades.
But three types of American-issued weapons are now readily visible in shops and bazaars here as well: Glock and Walther 9-millimeter pistols, and pristine, unused Kalashnikovs from post-Soviet Eastern European countries. These are three of the principal types of the 370,000 weapons purchased by the United States for Iraq’s security forces, a program that was criticized by a special inspector general this fall for, among other things, failing to properly account for the arms.
The weapons are easy to find, resting among others in the semihidden street markets here, where weapons are sold in tea houses, the back rooms of grocery kiosks, cosmetics stores and rug shops, or from the trunks of cars. Proprietors show samples for immediate purchase and offer to take orders — 10 guns can be had in two hours, they say, and 100 or more the next day.
“Every type of gun that the Americans give comes to the market,” said Brig. Hassan Nouri, chief of the political investigations bureau for the Sulaimaniya district. “They go from the U.S. Army to the Iraqi Army to the smugglers. I have captured many of these guns that the terrorists bought.”
The forces propelling the trade can be seen in the price fluctuations of the country’s most abundant firearm, the Kalashnikov.
In early 2003, a Kalashnikov in northern Iraq typically cost from $75 to $150, depending on its condition, origin and style. Immediately after the invasion, as fleeing soldiers abandoned their rifles and armories were looted, prices fell, pushed down by a glut and a brief sense of optimism.
Today, the same weapons typically cost $210 to $650, according to interviews with seven arms dealers, two senior Kurdish security officials and several customers. In other areas of Iraq, prices have climbed as high as $800, according to Phillip Killicoat, a researcher who has been assembling data on Kalashnikov prices worldwide for the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based organization.
The price ranges reflect not only a weapon’s condition but its model. A Kalashnikov made in a former Soviet-bloc factory costs more than a Kalashnikov made in China, North Korea or Iraq. Collapsible-stock models have become disproportionately expensive. The price ranges do not include the most compact Kalashnikovs, like those Osama bin Laden has been photographed with, which now have a collector’s value in Iraq and can cost as much as $2,000.
In many ways, weapon prices provide a condensed history of Iraq’s slide into chaos.
Prices began moving upward in the summer of 2003 as several classes of customers entered the market together, Iraqi security officials and the arms dealers said. Western security contractors, Sunni insurgent groups, Shiite paramilitary units and criminals who were released from prison by Saddam Hussein before the war all sought the same weapons at once.
Kalashnikov prices quickly reached $200, they said. Since late last year, prices have been moving up again, as sectarian war has spread. Militias have been growing at the same time that more civilians have been seeking weapons for self-defense — twin demand pressures that pushed prices to new heights this fall.
“Now the Sunni want the weapons because they fear the Shia, and the Shia want the weapons because they fear the Sunni,” said Brig. Sarkawt Hassan Jalal, the chief of security in the Sulaimaniya district. “So prices go up.”
Mr. Killicoat put it another way. “When households start entering the market, that’s a free-for-all,” he said.
The surge is evident across a spectrum of arms. Pistol prices have nearly tripled since 2003. Western 9-millimeter pistols now sell for $1,100 to $1,800 in the bazaars of this city. Sniper rifles cost $1,100 to $2,000, the dealers said. In the West, similar pistols sell for $400 to $600.
Arms dealers say that rising prices have led to more extensive pilfering from state armories, including the widespread theft of weapons the United States had issued to Iraq’s police officers and soldiers.
“In the south, if the Americans give the Iraqis weapons, the next day you can buy them here,” said one dealer, who sold groceries in the front of his kiosk and offered weapons in the back. “The Iraqi Army, the Iraqi police — they all sell them right away.”
No weapons were displayed when two visitors arrived. But when asked, the owner and a friend swiftly retrieved six pistols, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and three Kalashnikovs from a car and another room.
The rifles and the grenade launcher were wrapped in rice sacks. He slipped two of the rifles out of the cloth. They were spotless and unworn, inside and out, and appeared never to have been used. They had folding stocks and were priced at $560 each.
The dealer said they had recently been taken from an Iraqi armory. “Almost all of the weapons come from the Iraqi police and army,” he said. “They are our best suppliers.”
One pistol was a new Walther P99, a 9-millimeter pistol that the dealer said had been issued by the Americans to the Iraqi police. It was still in its box.
Glock pistols were also easy to find. One young Iraqi man, Rebwar Mustafa, showed a Glock 19 he had bought at the bazaar in Kirkuk last year for $900. Five of his friends have bought identical models, he said.
When asked if he was surprised that the Iraqi police and soldiers sold their own guns, he scoffed.
“Everything goes to the bazaar,” he said.
He added: “It is not only pistols. A lot of police cars are being sold. The smugglers brought us three cars and asked if we wanted to buy them. Their doors were still blue, and police labels were on them. The lights were still on top.”
Although the scale of weapons sales is unmistakably large, it is impossible to measure precisely. Sales are almost always hidden and unrecorded.
Tracing American-issued weapons back to Iraqi units that sell them is especially difficult because the United States did not register serial numbers for almost all of the 370,000 small arms purchased for Iraqi security forces, according to a report by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.
The weapons were paid for with $133 million from the Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund. Among them were at least 138,000 new Glock pistols and at least 165,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles that had not previously been used, according to the report.
Lt. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, agreed that weapons provided by the United States had slipped from custody.
“I certainly concede that there are weapons that have been lost, stolen and misappropriated,” General Dempsey said. He noted that the inspector general had estimated that 4 percent, or about 14,000 weapons, were lost between arriving in Iraq and being transferred to Iraqi forces. Most of the weapons were pistols.
The general said that he thought the estimate was high and that accountability was improving. A weapons registry was being created, he said. “Serial numbers are being registered,” he said.
But the estimate of a 4 percent loss did not include weapons that were lost or stolen after being issued to Iraqi units. The arms dealers said this was the main source of their goods.
The arms dealers described several factors that kept weapons flowing from state custody.
Some have been taken by insurgents in ambushes or raids. Defections and resignations have also been common in Iraqi police and army units, they said, and often departing soldiers and officers leave with their weapons, which are worth more than several months of pay.
Aaron Karp, a small-arms researcher at Old Dominion University, said Iraq resembled African countries that had had extraordinary difficulties with the police selling off their guns. “The gun becomes the most valuable thing in the household,” he said.
“If anything happens to a police officer’s family and he needs money, he walks into work the next day and says, ‘Hey, my gun got stolen.’ ”
Another weapons dealer, who Kurdish officials said had been providing them with weapons since 1991, said the latest black-market sales followed an old pattern precisely.
Throughout Mr. Hussein’s rule, Iraqi Army officers were in the arms trade, he said, selling weapons to smugglers. This was how the Kurdish guerrillas kept themselves supplied.
Now, he said, the smugglers remain in business, and their trade is made easier because the units often do not have inventories. “I am surprised sometimes by the numbers,” he said. “Sometimes they come by the hundreds.”
James Glanz contributed reporting from Baghdad.
Title and link courtesy Arthur “Do the Math” columnist Dave Reeves