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Northern Iraq might be the most expensive place on the globe to buy a gun, and if you’re Arab, it could prove impossible.
In the largely Kurdish region where natives are battling desperately to keep ruthless Islamic State fighters at bay, Russian-made AK-47s sell for $700, handguns start at $1,200 and U.S.-made M-16s fetch as much as $3,000. Everyday Kurds are taking up arms to protect their families and those seeking to join the Peshmerga, the Kurdish army, have to bring their own weapons to the front lines.
But not everyone’s money is good. Although Arabs have lived side-by-side with Kurds in the region for centuries, many Kurds say they don’t trust Arab Iraqis given Islamic State’s growing influence.
“I wouldn’t sell a gun to an Arab if you gave me $1 million,” one operator of a shop in of Sulemaniyah told FoxNews.com.
Similar markets have popped up in other towns around the region, including Kirkuk, where vendors display their goods on upturned boxes, lined against walls, piled on tables and hanging from pegs. Weapons are everywhere - Kalashnikovs, M-16s, M-4s, rocket-propelled grenades, handguns and even heavy-caliber weapons can be bought at the right price.
One vendor said Peshmerga soldiers qualified for a 50 percent discount, even recommending highly affordable pre-1980 AK-47s from a well-stocked inventory. Two years ago, an AK-47 sold for $300 here, but when civil war broke out in Syria, prices rose to an all-time high of $1,500. They’ve settle back to about $700.
The Russian-made rifle is still the weapon of choice in the region - mainly because ammunition is more common, they’re amazingly reliable and also far cheaper U.S. models. But the prices fluctuate daily based on the proximity and significance of battles, and the rise and fall of panic.
No one questions the weapons’ provenance. Many are believed to have come from deserters from the Iraqi army in the early days of fighting the Islamic State, then known as ISIS. So many weapons were abandoned at the time, as Iraqi soldiers fled their posts and surrendered Mosul and Tikrit to ISIS, that scavengers collected enough guns to temporarily depress prices.
A month earlier there had been a suicide bombing here after an Arab man walked into the open-air market in Kirkuk and detonating his device. Two soldiers and three civilians were killed in the attack, but the market continues to operate, shifting location when needed.
Further north, in the city of Sulemaniyah, the trade is more regulated and the weapons are sold over the counter in shops lining the main streets. FoxNews.com spoke to the owner of one such shop, who had long been selling guns, but only legally for two years.
Coy about where his weapons came from, he did say he received ammo by the truckload from civilians who had found them, though it is highly likely they are coming from a variety of sources.
The shop was packed at lunch time, as people came in and out, trying out weapons, testing them for weight and feel. The government insists that they take pictures of the buyers, note their address, and check identification, but FoxNews.com saw no Kurdish customers being turned away.
Outside, an enterprising young Kurd had set up a stall to sell hunting knives, and he seemed to be doing brisk business from those walking out of the store, their guns wrapped in black garbage bags.
In rugged northern Iraq, where a sense of unease beats down on Kurds like the relentless afternoon sun, it seems everybody is gearing for battle.
Follow Benjamin Hall on Twitter @BorderlineN or visit www.hallbenjamin.com