Politics & Policy

Combat Boots and Guns

Knives and boots at a military-supply store in Erbil. (Photo: Jillian Kay Melchior)
Kurdistan’s economy is suffering badly. But its military-supply business is booming.

Erbil, Iraq — Kurdistan, once seen as Iraq’s most promising region for businesses, has taken a major economic hit this year. Since January, Baghdad has withheld government funds, and the Islamic State’s territorial gains have cut the semi-autonomous Kurdistan off from many of its key markets, as well as many critical transportation routes. Yet one business is booming: the war-supply sector.

“Our jobs have been better since ISIS came because there has been a lot of demand,” says shop owner Kamaran Shamsaden, who sits surrounded by scopes, flashlights, fatigues, boots, military patches, and other combat gear. “Especially when ISIS came close to Makhmour” — a town roughly 28 miles away from Erbil — “we sold out of everything. We didn’t have equipment to give people.”

The predominantly male clients generally range in age from their early 20s to their 60s. Some customers belong to the peshmerga, Kurdistan’s military, which has also felt the pinch since Baghdad withheld funds. Some will be reimbursed, but for now they are paying for their equipment out of pocket, shopping in preparation for front line deployment.

Many more shoppers are civilians who want to protect their families or else join the fight against the Islamic State as volunteers, says Ahmad Davood, a tailor who has been sewing almost exclusively camouflage attire lately. “People want to fight because their land is in danger,” he says.

One shop offers a cache of rusty bayonet attachments. Boots, vests, military clothing, and holsters have been most in demand, say several store owners. New models of any kind of gear sell out quickly. Many stores also sell child-sized camouflage or peshmerga-style attire, increasingly popular among young boys in the region.

And then there are guns, hotly in demand and increasingly rare. The government doesn’t permit sanctioned military-supply stores to sell them, though some shop owners say their customers occasionally ask about how arms might be procured. “If someone asks, we say it’s against the rules,” says supply-shop owner Mohammad Hossin.

Until recently, a gun bazaar flourished in the slums near Kasnazan, about six miles outside of Erbil. Though it was technically black market, the Kurdish government didn’t prevent it from operating — and even set up a small office nearby to monitor arms sales and allow shoppers to register their new purchases.

As in the sanctioned military-supply shops, gun sales proved a good barometer of where the war against the Islamic State stood. When the jihadis conquered several towns and advanced in mid-August, VICE News reported, the price of a single bullet rose to $4 — exorbitantly high, given that Baghdad’s budget clampdown has meant no salaries for public workers, which has had major repercussions throughout the Kurdish economy. After air strikes pushed the Islamic State back, the price of bullets dropped to around 85 cents, VICE claimed.

But about three weeks ago, officials clamped down on the black market for armaments, shuttering the Kasnazan bazaar. In the military-supply sector, there’s much speculation about why. Some say the opening of a new jail nearby made its location too risky, while others say the decision was prompted by other construction development in the vicinity.

The most plausible explanation, however, is that, as Kurdistan begins receiving arms supplies from the international community, officials were nervous about the optics of shiny new weapons appearing in the black market.

That’s not to say one can no longer buy a gun in Erbil. The closure of the Kasnazan market has merely driven arms sales even deeper underground. I’m told customers arrange sales by phone, and gun dealers sell and deliver out of the trunks of their cars.

In war-torn Iraq, there are few better investments.

— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.

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