x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A turnaround in the Iraq-Syria gun smuggling trade

Kalashnikov rifles once smuggled for the Iraq war are returning to Syria for the rebels who seek the overthrow of President Bashar Al Assad.

Younis Al Lehaibi, an Iraqi gun smuggler, dismantles a Kalashnikov at his house in Mosul, 360 kilometres north-west of Baghdad. To successfully smuggle into Syria, the rifles are taken apart and hidden in cigarette cartons and kerosene tanks.
Younis Al Lehaibi, an Iraqi gun smuggler, dismantles a Kalashnikov at his house in Mosul, 360 kilometres north-west of Baghdad. To successfully smuggle into Syria, the rifles are taken apart and hidden in cigarette cartons and kerosene tanks.

BAGHDAD // The rifles are first taken apart and hidden in cigarette cartons and kerosene tanks. Younis Al Lehaibi and his sons then put them in their lorries and head out to Iraq's vast, dusty border with Syria. Their objective: to smuggle weapons to Syrian rebels who seek the overthrow of President Bashar Al Assad.

It is a turnaround from the height of the Iraqi war six years ago, when weapons and fighters would cross from Syria to aid fellow Sunnis in Iraq.

Mindful of roaming border police, Mr Al Lehaibi ditches the lorries once in Syria and travels the rest of the way by donkey. The Kalashnikovs are put back together, cleaned and handed over to a boy who hands him cash and brings the weapons into a nearby village.

Mr Al Lehaibi, 46, carefully examines his payment - usually US$1,000 (Dh3,673) - to make sure the currency is not counterfeit. And then he slips back into Iraq - eight hours after he left his home in the city of Mosul, 360 kilometres north-west of Baghdad.

Until a month ago, Mr Al Lehaibi said, it was not worth the effort. There was not much profit in smuggling Kalashnikov rifles. The Syrian rebels had all the weapons they needed.

The spike in demand likely reflects how Syria's uprising, as it approaches a year, has transformed into an outright clash of forces as the opposition turns more to armed action. In another dangerous turn, more foreign fighters, possibly linked to Al Qaeda, are believed to be crossing from Iraq to join the uprising against Mr Al Assad.

As a result, business has never been better for Mr Al Lehaibi, a squat, pale man with reddish hair.

"It's about making a good, profitable business," Mr Al Lehaibi said, describing his weekly smuggling trips in an interview with the Associated Press.

He hastily added: "It's also to help the Syrian people topple the tyrant who suppresses his nation for decades with severe brutality."

A senior Iraqi security official in Baghdad said intelligence over the last four months has revealed a flow of Al Qaeda-linked fighters from Mosul into Syria, including two militants trained as suicide bombers. A Mosul police official confirmed the increase in gun smuggling to Syria but described it as limited.

Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to release the information.

This week, Al Qaeda's global leader Ayman Al Zawahri called on Muslims from Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to join the Syrian uprising, which began in March as a peaceful protest but has grown into a bloody insurgency. Experts fear Syria will follow the same path Iraq charted just a few years ago: teetering on the edge of civil war, only to face an indefinite future of instability and, for many, despair.

A Kalashnikov rifle, known as an AK-47, usually sells for no more than $200, Mr Al Lehaibi said. But their new-found demand has encouraged dealers to raise the wholesale price to about $700. Mr Al Lehaibi acts as the middle man, making a tidy profit by charging $1,000.

The prices jumped so much that even Al Qaeda leaders in Iraq chided dealers for price gouging in a statement on a militant website the day after Al Zawahri's edict.

"The arms brokers have raised the prices very high for the Mujahedeen who are trying to transfer that to their fellow rebels in Syria," read the statement posted on the site associated with the Islamic State of Iraq, which is an Al Qaeda splinter group. "Unfortunately there are gangs that claim they affiliate with the jihadist, but they benefit from such trade.

"Please make a special effort in this period for the continued flow of arms," the statement urged.

Mr Al Lehaibi has been smuggling for more than 10 years. He began sneaking food rations into the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq in the 1990s while Saddam Hussein was in power. Later, he smuggled satellite receivers, cigarettes and kerosene between Syria and the Kurdish region.

Sometimes Mr Al Lehaibi trades his guns for sheep - which gives him a convenient cover as a sheep dealer in the rare times border police have accosted him.

"We do fear being caught, but a fundamental principle of our work is to put fear behind us," he said. "There are tighter security measures in Mosul, but there are dozens of smugglers who do this job after years of relations and help from bordering villages who have these needs."