Wiping tears away, Ahmad Radham, mourned what could have been. “If we had had our own weapons we could have defended ourselves and then our family would not have had to die,” says the 37-year-old, who is attending the funeral of one of around 16 locals killed about 60 kilometres out of Baghdad at the beginning of this month.
The individual who died in this village, in the Tarmiyah area north of the capital, was one of several members of the Albu Faraj tribe, who had fought the extremist group known as the Islamic State, in the past. The attackers were identified as being members of the group.
The incident began when the extremists attacked the house of a lawyer, who was known for helping victims of the IS group. The lawyer and his family were killed and security forces gave chase. Unfortunately the extremists then entered the town centre and began shooting wildly.
The people here know it is best to find local solutions to local problems.
“Nobody here was able to defend themselves because none of the shops or the neighbouring hoses had a weapon easily at hand,” Radham told NIQASH. “If the security forces had not intervened further, we would have lost even more of our friends and family.”
Complaints like Radham’s then led to a protest on May 6, five days after the attack. Locals believe that they should be allowed to have more guns so that they can take responsibility for their own security, something they say the government and army has not been able to provide.
It is true that many Iraqi households still have at least one gun at home. But over recent years there has been a concerted attempt to demilitarise Baghdad and its surrounds. It remains legal for an Iraqi household to have one gun, as long as it is registered. But, depending on their levels of enthusiasm and the political environment, local authorities have also undertaken campaigns to confiscate what they consider excess weaponry and have held drives asking citizens to register their guns at the local police station.
Of course, many Iraqis don’t follow the rules and still have more than one weapon at home. This is mainly because they don’t trust the local authorities to be able to protect them.
For example, the attitude toward gun ownership changed again in June 2014, when the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group managed to take control of the country’s second biggest city, Mosul.
Baghdad has always been a little different though and in February, 2015, the government decided that at least five areas in Baghdad should be demilitarized. Baghdad was a secure place and there was no need for ordinary citizens to keep weapons, they said. This policy was eventually applied to almost all of Baghdad.
Tarmiyah, where the most recent attack took place, has been an exception to that rule up until relatively recently. The area is in the infamous “Baghdad belt”, a swathe of less urban areas and farmland, where extremists have been known to hide out. Tarmiyah was also one of the last areas to be cleared of IS fighters and there are (justified) fears that some are still hiding in this area.
Nonetheless Tarmiyah was also eventually included in the campaign against too many guns and the Ministry of the Interior even promised that special troops would be formed in this area, made up of local men, who would protect their own homes and land but be armed and paid by the federal government.
However this brigade was never formed and after the most recent attack and deaths, community leaders in Tarmiyah wrote a letter to their MPs asking why the brigade had not been created and what was preventing it from happening. The government approved the formation of the brigade almost over a year ago, the letter said, and the politicians who were elected to represent the district needed to advocate for its creation.
“If the brigade was formed, then we wouldn’t want to keep our guns,” one of the community leaders, Hamid al-Jassim, told NIQASH. “It would mean that the people of Tarmiyah could defend Tarmiyah. The people here know it is best to find local solutions to local problems,” he argued.
Al-Jassim added that he believes there are political reasons as to why a local brigade is taking so long. He and other locals believe that the Shiite Muslim politicians are frightened about arming Sunni Muslims.
A few hours after the attack in Tarmiyah, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, one of the most senior commanders in the Shiite Muslim militias, stated that his men believe that there are more than 200 IS fighters still hiding out in the Baghdad belt. “They hid there after the end of fighting and they are still a threat,” al-Mohandes said.
The people of Tarmiyah agree – and that’s why they want their guns back.