Update on Iraq: Small Arms Continue to Wreak Havoc

Tasneem Jamal

Lynne Griffiths-Fulton

The Ploughshares Monitor Autumn 2004 Volume 25 Issue 3

In the Autumn 2003 issue of The Ploughshares Monitor, David Jackman wrote about the devastating effects that small arms were having on Iraq. Now, over a year later, the problems have worsened, with small arms continuing to kill and maim people on a daily basis. Drive-by shootings and rocket-propelled grenade attacks are commonplace. As the insurgency continues to unfold, civilians are caught in the crossfire. Effective disarmament programs that allow Iraqi citizens to begin to rebuild their lives and their country in a secure environment are more crucial than ever.

Iraq is now a society of predators and prey, both fully armed with weapons looted from military stores that the US-led coalition forces failed to secure after the war. According to the latest Small Arms Survey (2004), Iraq is one of the most heavily armed countries in the world. Estimates put Iraq’s arsenal of conventional arms at between seven and eight million or 30 firearms for every 100 people. Iraq “has become synonymous with gun violence.”1

How did this situation develop? After Saddam’s regime fell, the search by coalition forces for weapons of mass destruction took precedence over any attempts to circumscribe the very real and present danger presented by the over-abundance of small arms. When the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) took control in April 2003, they did not address this problem, even though there is mounting evidence from post-war societies like Kosovo and Sierra Leone that gun violence increases after a conflict ends if effective disarmament and demobilization programs are not implemented. Instead, the CPA enacted legislation that allowed all Iraqi males to keep one weapon for personal security and, because no provisions were made for any kind of formal registration, there is no way of keeping track of who has what. Many of the ‘legally’ owned guns have made their way onto the black market and are used in crimes and acts of violence.

In an article for the Globe and Mail, Robert Muggah (2004) wrote about the devastating effects of small arms on humanitarian aid workers around the world. Small arms have caused 75 per cent of the violent deaths of UN personnel. In Iraq, the misuse of small arms by armed criminals, ex-security forces of the former regime, and insurgents have hindered or completely halted post-conflict reconstruction and recovery. NGOs and humanitarian aid organizations have stopped their work and pulled personnel out of Iraq largely in response to these increases in armed violence and hostage-taking.

So far disarmament has been largely a piecemeal effort. In June 2004, the CPA undertook one eight-day gun buyback program in which amnesty and cash were offered in return for weapons. For example, someone handing over an AK-47 assault rifle was entitled to $125. During the course of the program about $350,000 a day was distributed to individuals turning in everything from ammunition to surface-to-air missiles.

In the end, the program proved largely ineffective. Iraqis were allowed to keep one weapons for personal safety, usually the equivalent of an AK-47, and handguns were largely overlooked. Many Iraqis bought weapons on the black market and turned them in for profit. Some people reportedly used the money gained by turning in older weapons to buy newer models on the street. In Karbala, US forces ran out of money. Although weapons were taken off the streets, success was largely symbolic; the program didn’t last long enough to contribute to national security. One report (Stohl 2004) suggests that paying the equivalent of as much as a year’s wages to someone in possession of illegal weapons no doubt fueled resentment and jealousy, and created targets for criminals.

To further compound the deteriorating security situation, in June 2004 the 14-year-old UN arms embargo on Iraq was lifted when the new interim Iraqi government was appointed. According to one report (Wood 2004), among the millions-of-dollars-worth of conventional weapons that have already been channeled to Iraq are small arms, including 50,000 handguns from the Austrian company Glock, 26,000 Russian AK-47 assault rifles, 4,000 Russian PKM and RPK machine guns, approximately 1,800 9 mm pistols, and at least 187 million rounds of ammunition. Critics like Frida Berrigan (2004), senior research associate with the World Policy Institute, opposed the lifting of the embargo: “It does not seem wise to introduce new weaponry and military capability into Iraq’s volatile mix of ongoing war and occupation, civil strife and political transition.… Instead of aiding the United States in putting down the uprisings, thousands from Iraq’s newly trained police force have deserted, and many reportedly turned over their U.S.-issued weapons to street fighters.”

There is a glimmer of hope. Under the burden of increased levels of fighting on the streets of Baghdad, the new Iraqi interim government began a five-day gun amnesty in October in the insurgent-controlled district of Baghdad, Sadr City. This amnesty is to be followed by a reconstruction program to rebuild the district.

While it remains to be seen if this program will prove more successful than the one carried out in June, efforts that help to restore people’s confidence in the system and establish greater security are essential to restoring some semblance of order to people’s lives. If people feel safer, they are likelier to hand over weapons. As Abdulla Abu Ghassan, a bakery owner, said, “I think this is a good opportunity to end the fighting and achieve peace. We really hope to live a normal life” (Washington Post 2004).
The interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, has called for a nationwide arms handover in the run-up to elections in January. The details of the plan are unknown and may or may not include the exchange of money.

Along with gun amnesties, greater stockpile management and destruction of collected weapons must be undertaken. In the longer-term, the Iraqi government will have to recognize the importance of greater restrictions on civilian possession of assault weapons, including the licensing and scrutiny of buyers. The many similar programs being carried out around the world yield lessons that should inform efforts in Iraq.

  1. Estimates put the pre-war arsenal at 3.2 million, which was augmented by 4.2 million former military weapons. Weapons of former police and intelligence services that ended up in civilian hands could number in the hundreds of thousands but there are no hard statistics. As well, the number of light weapons such as RPG-7s (rocket-propelled grenade launchers) in circulation is still unknown (Small Arms Survey 2004).


Berrigan, F. 2004, “Small Arms? Big Problem,” July 9.

Jackman, D. 2003, “Small arms and security in Iraq,” The Ploughshares Monitor, vol. 24, no. 3 (Autumn).

Small Arms Survey 2004, Small Arms Survey 2004: Rights at Risk, Oxford University Press, New York.

Stohl, R. 2004, “Forget WMD – It’s Conventional Arms That Are Killing GIs and Iraqis,” Los Angeles Times, July 19.

The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times 2004, “Rebels begin weapons handover,” October 12.

Wood, D. 2004, “Army plans huge arms shipment to Iraq,” Newhouse News Service, May 18.

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