Small Arms and Security in Iraq

Tasneem Jamal

David Jackman

The Ploughshares Monitor Autumn 2003 Volume 24 Issue 3

David Jackman is a private consultant on peacebuilding, small arms control and conflict management. In 2002 he served as Quaker Associate Regional Representative in the Middle East. He remains actively involved in small arms issues in the region.

This article is based on a paper presented at the conference “The UN Program of Action (PoA) to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects in the Arab Region: Successes and Challenges,” June 23-24, 2003. The conference was organized in Amman by the Regional Human Security Center.




The genesis for this article was an email message I sent to a number of contacts in the small arms community during the early stages of the recent war against Iraq. I outlined my concerns about the security issues related to the many small arms dispersed in Iraq and asked if anyone would be taking action, once the war was over. The answers were not encouraging. Few small arms organizations were focused on the Iraqi situation; some US military contacts expressed concern and hinted at some limited action to come. There was little evidence that governments or non-governmental agencies (NGOs) would be engaging seriously with the small arms threat in Iraq.

Now, several months after US President Bush declared victory, most observers agree that security conditions in Iraq have hit rock bottom and recovery is far from certain. Signs of continued conflict and animosity are still common in and around Baghdad and many other cities in the country. The coalition’s occupying force now admits that it is facing a guerilla war, not just scattered opposition. Patrols by military units are not safe from attack and there is still little respect for the small, newly organized Iraqi civilian police. In July, as part of the effort to show a return to normal life, international airlines were invited to bid on landing rights at the Baghdad airport. But as a reporter wryly noted, “Relatively high fares are the least of a traveler’s worries, though…. Resistance fighters are still trying to shoot down planes…. Landmines are being planted nightly on a main road leading to the airport … and daily guerilla attacks are occurring on American and British convoys” (Wong 2003, p. A1). The weapons that continue to threaten the recovery of Iraq are, overwhelmingly, small arms such as portable surface-to-air missiles, landmines, assault rifles, mortars, and rocket-powered grenades.

Small arms and the security implosion in Iraq

Late last spring the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker agency active in the Middle East, sent two trucks loaded with medical supplies into Iraq. In an email written then, a colleague reported: “We’ve successfully transported two truckloads of medicines into Baghdad (one was hijacked, the driver robbed, and the fully loaded truck recovered).”

The medical system to which this material was delivered was described in another message:

[The] hospital administrator, Dr. Mohammad Kaldhun, explained how other concerns threaten to overtake even the shortage or absence of critical medicines. First, security remains the primary concern of hospital staff. U.S. troops have refused requests to guard the hospital, which continues to be attacked and looted by armed gangs. Second, a lack of wages threatens to make care impossible. Hospital staff were given $20 by the Occupying Power, but have not received regular wages since prior to the war. It is increasingly difficult for staff to report to work, given the limited availability and affordability of petrol for commuting.

While most of the world is still arguing over the presence or absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, it is clear that the ongoing security of that country, indeed its very stability, is threatened by small arms – weapons that remain almost invisible in conventional strategic planning. The presence of large numbers of such weapons in the hands of the civilian population and remnants of the former regime’s security forces has stalled the recovery in Iraq and continues to contribute to a widespread sense of chaos and insecurity. For historical parallels to the situation in Baghdad and some other Iraqi cities, one would need to look to past events in Beirut, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and other places where widespread availability of small arms paralyzed the return to peace and even consigned some countries to long-term instability. But for all their troubling similarities, each of these situations has its own specific characteristics. If we are to reduce the impacts of small arms violence and reverse the trend toward real and perceived insecurity, we must deal with each country on its own terms.

Mid-way through 2002, in a short, descriptive overview of small arms issues in the Middle East region. I noted:

Countries with very strong central government control of society are much more likely to restrict the availability of small arms. This is more to protect the state than to protect citizens, but both are factors. Also, with these states’ very large security, intelligence and border forces, such controls can be more effectively implemented. It is also true that such states reveal much less information about criminality and weapons availability, so some of their apparent control may be more propaganda than fact.

That was a common view, I suspect. So perhaps there is some excuse for the surprise that many of us felt when we witnessed the explosion of civilian violence in post-war Iraq. But that would let us all off the hook too easily. There were many signs of the implosion to come:

  • the harsh repression of any sign of civilian dissent throughout the Saddam Hussein regime;
  • the organization in Iraq of large armed forces separate from the regular military and loyal to Saddam Hussein personally;
  • the failed uprising and later massacres carried out after 1991 (largely by means of small arms) in southern Iraq;
  • the continued division of Iraqi society into three distinct religious-ethnic communities, each with a history of fear and suspicion of
  • the others; and the exploitation of this division by the Iraqi government;
  • the widespread involvement of Iraqis in military conscription and weapons training;
  • the arming of Kurdish forces in the north;
  • the choice by the Iraqi government to employ irregular warfare by dispersed forces as their main defence strategy;
  • the reported distribution of tens of thousands of additional assault rifles to the civilian population before the war began;
  • the US/UK reliance on a relatively small, hi-tech invasion force that rapidly defeated regular Iraqi forces but had insufficient troops to maintain security.

As a prosecutor might conclude, we could identify clear motivation, means, and opportunity for the eventual criminal outbreak of small arms violence. If one were analyzing the period leading to the Iraq war from the perspective of small arms proliferation and demand, the above list of factors would lead to a prediction of the outcome we have witnessed. That the situation was not analyzed in this way points to the dangerous underestimation of the importance of small arms in security thinking in the Middle East and elsewhere.

But perhaps none of us realized the importance of one other factor in the equation. This was the effect on Iraqi civilians of more than a decade of harsh economic sanctions. Because of the control exercised by the Iraqi government, we outside observers, including those who were able to undertake programs inside Iraq, were never able to understand fully the extent of the breakdown in social cohesion and civility. Indeed, as seen in recent interviews in Baghdad, not even the Iraqi middle class itself expected the social chaos and looting that it eventually witnessed. We had all become inured to the exhaustion and sense of isolation repeatedly described in private comments by Iraqi civilians while living under sanctions. We did not realize that this impacted fear and social atomization, when combined with the widespread availability of small arms, would result in the destruction and looting of the very infrastructure on which civilian society depends. This is powerful negative evidence of the importance of relating national and regional security to a much wider range of indicators than the normal strategic balance includes.

The combination of all these factors has led to the many direct impacts that we read about in news reports from Iraq. Even a short list would mention:

  • daily incidents of injuries and deaths from small arms attacks on civilians and military personnel;
  • the open presence of guns and military weapons on the street and for sale in market places;
  • looting of private and public properties by a wide range of armed groups – from impromptu opportunists to organized crime and possibly to paramilitary groups;
  • the spread of looting and destruction to the physical infrastructure on which modern urban life depends: hospitals, electrical networks, schools, government offices, factories, and places of business;
  • neighbourhood fights to prevent looting and to settle accounts;
    incidents of kidnapping;
  • the admission by US commanders in Iraq that many small arms – including military assault rifles – cannot be removed from civilian society because the level of insecurity demands their continued availability.1

Bad as this is, it is not the whole story. Studies conducted by Small Arms Survey and other organizations that focus on areas heavily affected by gun violence identify other, indirect and more long-lasting impacts such as:

  • forced migration;
  • lack of access to satisfy basic household needs;
  • interruption of employment and rural livelihoods;
  • reduction of direct foreign investment;
  • undermining of public services and destruction of common resources;
  • reduction in access to humanitarian and development assistance.2

These are typical indirect effects and not surprisingly you can see evidence of most of them in Iraq. Many are inter-related and reinforce each other. For example, even though US forces initially avoided damaging the Iraqi electrical grid in hopes of a quick recovery in Iraq, ongoing fighting and extensive looting have damaged the infrastructure extensively. Here is how Iraqi businessmen describe the chain of insecurity that results from the disrupted electrical system:

“The impact of this is a ripple effect,” said Maazen Baaghet, co-owner of al-Shumuz, which makes plastic shopping bags in a factory in the capital’s industrial Jamila district. “If I can’t operate 24 hours a day, then my workers can’t get the salaries they used to, and that affects the buying power of the household. That spreads through the state and the country. And if this keeps up, it will lead to the economic deterioration of the country.” From Mr. Dhiyakh’s butcher shop to Mr. Baaghet’s factory to large chemical plants to the refineries that make the gasoline and cooking gas now in shortage here, businesses, even those with their own power generators, have sharply scaled back production. Without electricity, people do not go to work or have work to go to. And without street lights, the city faces an even higher crime rate, residents say (Banerjee 2003).

The impact of continued gun violence and the resulting insecurity in Iraq stretches from the destruction of physical services and infrastructure (water, electricity, transport, communications), to public organizations (schools, hospitals, government, policing), to the private economy (factories, businesses, stores), and thence to the capacity of families to provide food , shelter, and most aspects of a normal life. Finally, the foundations of social structure and even confidence in personal and family identity are attacked.

Reversing the trend

What major steps will tip these trends back toward a sense of increasing security and a reweaving of positive social structure?

Postwar programs in peacekeeping, demobilization, and peacebuilding organized in other war-torn societies can show the way. A simple return to normal life is a common hope expressed by many civilians in and after wartime. The establishment of a general perception of life’s becoming “normal,” of a relative increase in perceived security is all-important in shifting social attitudes toward cooperation and responsibility.

To achieve this result, one must remove as quickly as possible the immediate signs of abnormality:

  • guns must not be visible on the street;
  • looting and the fear of looting must end;
  • visual presence of official security must return to the streets – eventually provided by retrained civilian police;
  • free movement must be established for civilians, including some public transportation; and
  • streets must be cleared and some rebuilding and repair undertaken.

Parallel to these changes there must be increasing evidence of

  • a return of public services: water, electricity, policing, trash collection;
  • the reopening of public institutions: hospitals, schools, government offices; and
  • the reopening of businesses, shops, and the renewal of income opportunities.

With some immediate evidence of these changes in place and with an increasing expectation of the return of public services, there would be an important return of confidence among civilians. In turn, this would lead families and individuals to invest their time, faith, and wealth in a return to long-term economic and social recovery. If this continues for long enough, civilians will lose their interest in holding military weapons. They might either forget they have them, or even begin to regard them as a danger, rather than a security asset. At this point a civilian arms collection program becomes possible – not before. Once such confidence is in place, one might begin to move toward establishing culturally appropriate gun control guidelines of the kind that were described in the workshops held in the region last year.

Meanwhile, the process of civilian normalization, recovery, and arms control provides important roles for civil society, NGOs, and government. Civil society urgently needs small arms groups to begin monitoring and data collection projects, to initiate efforts to interpret accurately the events in Iraq, and to lobby for security and recovery programs that have some possibility of success. In addition, relief and development NGOs should organize medium- and longer-term programs that incorporate security awareness into their planning. There is a developing body of information on the kinds of programs that increase the civilian perception of security and lessen the demand for small arms.3 The relevant principles and directions should be incorporated into current NGO priorities. Many of the most effective actors will be local Iraqi partners – perhaps even new NGOs created after the war.

For outside donor governments there is clearly much to be done in the repair and development of infrastructure and short-term projects to get society moving again. To be effective and sustainable these will need the efforts of Iraqis themselves. The population includes a large number of capable, educated people. They need resources and support. Most importantly, programs should include a variety of programs focused on young males – older boys, teens, and youth – who are most vulnerable to recruitment into armed violence. It is worth noticing that successful community policing reforms in other parts of the world are designed to link youth, policing, educational, arts, and job training programs together in an attempt to create a minimal foundation for community security.4 Parallel to this should be a specialized demobilization and reintegration program for those elements of the former armed forces that have not found a place in civilian life.

Governments and NGOs from the Arab region could have a place in these initiatives. Perhaps a first step could be the strengthening of regional cooperation on border controls to stem the movement of weapons in and out of Iraq. As a colleague said, “All those millions of arms are going to go somewhere and it is in the interests of the governments in the region to see this as a problem with a huge potential for undermining their own security.”5 This could be followed by some assistance to Iraq for reform and training of its police. But further work to develop security inside Iraq would require new styles both for Iraqis and outsiders. Participation by governments in the region could be an important learning experience in terms of both regional solidarity and the opportunity to create new programs that would be applicable in their own countries. Iraq is not the only place in the region where economic disparity, unemployment, and the presence of weapons can lead to violence. Who would know better than Arab countries how to find culturally appropriate means of improving security in Iraq? And what region could benefit more from the stability of that country?

Clearly we will have to play catch-up with the emerging problems in Iraq, perhaps for many years. Meanwhile, we don’t have the luxury of waiting until wars end to begin anticipating recovery needs. The security disaster in Iraq, caused in part by widespread availability of small arms, may foreshadow similar situations in other nearby states. We have no choice but to begin paying attention.



  1. All of the above and more are documented in news articles in The New York Times, BBC World web site, Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Post, Agence France Presse, and other news sources.
  2. List adapted from Muggah and Berman 2001, pp. viii – ix.
  3. See the resource list in Quaker UN Office, Appendix 3, p. 48.
  4. For example, see Dowdney 2003.
  5. Private communication to the author. It is worth noting that there were concerns expressed in the Middle East after the previous Gulf War in 1991 that surplus small arms in the hands of former Iraqi soldiers would find their way across borders into neighbouring countries due to strong political and economic demand in the region.


Banerjee, Neela 2003, “No Power, No Rebirth In Iraqi Business,” The New York Times, May 25.

Dowdney, Luke 2003, Children of the Drug Trade: A Case Study of Children in Organised Armed Violence in Rio de Janeiro, Viva Rio, Rio de Janeiro.

Quaker UN Office 2002, “Curbing the Demand for Small Arms: Focus on Southeast Asia,” Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 27-31.

Muggah, Robert and Berman, Eric 2001, Humanitarianism Under Threat: The Humanitarian Impacts of Small Arms and Light Weapons, Special Report No. 1, Small Arms Survey, Geneva, July.

Wong, Edward 2003, “Airlines Covet Access to Baghdad Once Safety Worries Are Allayed,” The New York Times, July 29.

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