Dozens of men crowd shops in central Baghdad, perusing military equipment including helmets, boots and camouflage uniforms that they will need after volunteering to fight against a major militant offensive.
Some leave with plastic bags of camouflage fatigues, while others buy gear including pocket-laden vests that may or may not actually protect them against bullets, but nonetheless look the part.
Urged on by a call from top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, thousands of Iraqis have volunteered to fight against Sunni Arab militants who have overrun swathes of northern and central Iraq.
For those trading in military gear, business is good.
“From the beginning of the crisis, there was an increase in sales… of about 200 percent, 300 percent,” while prices have risen as well, says Osama, the owner of one shop in central Baghdad.
He sells everything from uniforms, boots, helmets and vests to grips and sights for assault rifles, military patches and rank insignia.
Previously, “all sales were to the army and the police,” but that changed with Sistani’s call and the worsening situation in the country, Osama says.
Now, everyone from young men to those with grey in their hair are flocking to buy military equipment in the Bab al-Sharji area of Baghdad.
– ‘The country needs me’ –
“We do not have military experience, but God willing, we will gain military experience from people older than us,” says Walid Najm, a young man wearing sunglasses and a hat with a digital camouflage pattern who decided to volunteer to fight the militants.
“I am a barber, but I left this career because the country needs me,” he says, later trying on a camouflage-covered helmet and protective goggles.
Hamza Zora, a short man with a grey-flecked black beard, carries a folded camouflage uniform he bought.
Unlike Najm, Zora has five years of military experience from Saddam Hussein’s forces, and is now ready to use his skills against militants who include supporters of the ousted dictator.
Abbas Sadiq, who is accompanying Zora, says he wants to “defend the innocent people,” whether they are Sunni, Shiite or Christian.
He is volunteering with Saraya al-Salam, a force announced by powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that is to include members of his officially inactive Mahdi Army.
Sadiq has already bought his uniform, and says the total cost of necessary equipment is roughly 100,000 to 150,000 Iraqi dinars ($83 to $125).
The area of Bab al-Sharji in which the military shops are located is strung with coils of barbed wire and guarded by police and soldiers.
It has been bombed before, and some nervous patrons and shop owners shout that they do not want to be filmed.
Most shops offer similar selections of items, but one sells patches for Saraya al-Salam, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Ketaeb Hezbollah, the latter two of which are Shiite militant groups that split from Sadr’s Mahdi Army in past years.
There has been a run on military uniforms in Bab al-Sharji, with thousands selling out in a matter of days, says shop owner Jabbar Assab.
“Most of the buyers are volunteers,” he says.
He adds that the same sweeping unrest that led to the surge in demand for military gear is also blocking routes used to import new stock.
“There is no way to import more,” Assab says