Street Costs of Iraqi Weapons Are Rising

The black-market cost of weapons and ammunition in Baghdad is soaring. Military analysts think the rise means that the vast supply of Saddam-era arms may be running dry. For insurgents, it means a struggle to get their ordnance.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

More than three years after the U.S. invasion, people in Baghdad have learned to live with the threat of murder, kidnapping and the daily fighting between insurgents and U.S. forces. But the violence has had an unexpected side effect.

NPR's Phillip Reeves prepared this report.

PHILLIP REEVES reporting:

In a dark and tiny room inside his home, a young man, let's call him Mohammed, shows off his wares. He's reluctant to give his full name. He says it's too risky. After all, selling weapons in Iraq these days is a dangerous business.

MOHAMMED (Arms Dealer, Iraq): (Through translator) This is a Russian Kalashnikov. It's brand new. It's never fired a shot.

REEVES: Outside in the street, a couple of youths act as his lookouts in case American or Iraqi security forces pull in. On a cloth spread over the floor Mohammed carefully lays out an assortment of guns. There are AK-47s and pistols, standard items in the arsenals of the people of Baghdad these days.

MOHAMMED: (Through translator) This is a Romanian AK. Secondhand, but in good condition. This is a Glock pistol. Now it cost $1,400. Two months ago you could buy it for less than $700.

REEVES: That pistol is not the only weapon to have become dramatically more expensive in recent months. Mohammed says there's been a sharp rise in weapons prices across the board in Baghdad.

MOHAMMED: (Through translator) Just after Saddam fell, a Russian AK-47 sold for $50. Now it costs $350. Immediately after the regimen collapsed, a rocket-propelled grenade was very cheap, no more than $50. Now, one costs about $11,000 to $12,000. A grenade was sold for $1. Now, one grenade is $38.

REEVES: Iraq's capital is in the gripes of an epidemic of sectarian bloodletting. The city's morgue is overflowing. Every week it receives hundreds of bodies, most with a bullet to the head, execution-style, some beheaded. Everyday, corpses are fished out of the Tigris River. This wave of killing is one reason Baghdad's residents now appear willing to pay more for their guns. Mohammed says there's another.

MOHAMMED: (Through translator) It's because of the rise in demand from some of the political groups.

REEVES: Political groups, he says, like the Shiite's militia, the Mahdi Army. Mohammed says he's already had a visit from Mahdi militiamen, demanding he sell his entire stock of weapons to them. When the U.S. invaded Iraq, the country was littered with vast arms dumps. The U.S. military regularly finds weapons caches.

General BILL CALDWELL (U.S. Army): Good afternoon.

REEVES: Spokesman Major General Bill Caldwell announces the latest significant finds, stocks of weaponry hidden in a soccer stadium in Ramadi, a Sunni Arab city where the Iraqi insurgency has proved particularly relentless.

General CALDWELL: What we ended up finding around that location itself were four significant weapons caches. Next slide please. Here's Cache Site 1, and Number 2 right over here.

REEVES: Yet despite such discoveries, U.S. commanders say there's little evidence the insurgents are running out of weapons.

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REEVES: In his shop in Baghdad, Khalil Ibrahim(ph), who sells generators, keeps a Kalashnikov under the counter, just in case he's attacked. Fiddling nervously with his prayer beads, he says people are nowadays buying more guns than ever, despite the rising prices.

Mr. KHALIL IBRAHIM (Iraqi resident): (Through translator) Everybody wants to buy a weapon. Even if he's already got one, he'll buy another. My aunt yesterday phoned me and asked me to buy her a machine gun because armed men came and started shooting around her house.

REEVES: And, says Khalil Ibrahim, finding someone to sell you a weapon is not a problem.

Mr. IBRAHIM: (Through translator) Ask any policemen. The police in my neighborhood, if you ask them for a weapon, they will get you one. In fact, a policeman bought me my weapon. He even came with me to buy it.

REEVES: Phillip Reeves, NPR News, Baghdad.

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