BAGHDAD — In the past, the soldiers with 1st Battalion, 68th Infantry would have had no problem finding an AK-47 assault rifle in Omar Abdul Satar’s home. Iraqis have a long history of owning guns, and few homes in the country are without one.
But the government is trying to change that. It recently decided to prohibit guns in the capital. That was bad news for Satar. When the U.S. soldiers and their Iraqi counterparts found his AK, they confiscated it and took it back to their base in Baghdad’s Adhamiyah district.
Iraqi soldiers began collecting private guns around the capital in September after the Iraqi government instituted the gun ban. More recently, American soldiers have been searching homes to round up firearms around the city as well. Only citizens with the proper permit can keep their weapons. Unlike in the United States, they usually must have a job that requires a gun to obtain a permit.
The law previously allowed all homes to have one gun — invariably an AK — and one ammunition magazine. Most Iraqis deemed their guns to be an essential item for living in an environment where safety can’t be taken for granted. Capt. Patrick Soule, commander of Company D, 2nd Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment, recalled their ubiquitous presence before the ban.
"Just about every home I went into in Dora (a Baghdad neighborhood) had an AK," said Soule, whose company is attached to 1-68. "Most people just showed it to you."
Soule, who is now stationed in Adhamiyah, estimated that his company has confiscated about 60 AKs so far. They have not yet arrested anybody.
The soldiers give the gun owners a receipt for each weapon they confiscate in case the owner wants to protest the confiscation later. Those allowed to own guns sometimes accidentally let their permits lapse and can get their weapons back if they renew their permits.
If not, the Iraqi soldiers may keep the weapons to equip their own units. Any weapons the Iraqis don’t want are turned over to the battalion intelligence officer for further disposition.
Soule said he feels safer with the guns off the street. The ban doesn’t just make it harder for people to attack coalition and Iraqi forces, he said, the area will also be safer from the celebratory fire that Iraqis use during weddings and other special events. It will also make routine disputes less likely to escalate to deadly shootings.
Iraqis were mixed in their response to the gun ban. Satar wasn’t happy to see American and Iraqi soldiers confiscate his AK during their patrol.
"Actually, we need them for self-defense and protecting the home," he said.
Soldiers said they regularly hear that complaint when they confiscate weapons.
But Galia Joulan Ahammad, an elderly Adhamiyah widow, said she was glad the guns were being carried away from her neighborhood — which the Americans call "JAM Alley," after the Arabic acronym for the Mahdi Army militia. The situation around this area has improved since the gun ban went into effect.
"It’s good for us that the coalition is searching the homes," she said.
Ahammad did not have any guns, but even those with guns remained placid when security forces confiscated theirs.
Soule said the country’s improving security has helped many people feel that they no longer need a gun.
Clearing Baghdad of guns won’t be easy, though. The city is awash in firearms after years of fighting, and many are reluctant to give them up. Those who lose their guns to coalition soldiers can buy new ones easily and cheaply. The 1-68 soldiers had already searched JAM Alley a few times before, but still found a couple of AKs after searching for two hours.
The Iraqi soldiers were glad to be taking possession of the weapons. As security has improved, insurgents have shifted their attacks from the Americans to Iraqi forces. Sgt. Allah Atemadh thought the city would be safer without so many guns around.
"Baghdad, it must be disarmed," Atemadh said. "They will confiscate the guns from everybody — especially private guns."