With legs crossed, exposing a woolen pair of klash — the traditional Kurdish footwear — Sadik, a 38-year-old commando in a KDP counter-terrorism unit, carefully inserts one bullet after another into his newly purchased magazine. The peshmerga fighter sits on a couch cast in dim light behind the counter of the makeshift store that his cousin, Nadik, is running at a weapons market six miles east of Erbil.
Sadik is on leave from the frontlines near Makhmour, a town recently wrested from the hands of the Islamic State. Before returning to the fight against da'esh, the colloquial moniker for the militant group, he stopped by his cousin's store to purchase a few extra clips and stock up on ammunition.
"What the Ministry of Peshmerga cannot provide, we have to buy ourselves," he tells VICE News.
"One bullet costs 85 cents," Sadik says, holding up a 5.56mm bullet, the standard caliber for a much-coveted M16 rifle. "Two weeks ago with da'esh still advancing these would have gone for $4 — but you would not have been able to find a single one." Sadik takes obvious pride that, as a commando, he is equipped with the American M16, which is a precious item for the underarmed peshmerga.
The weapons market, located in a gravel-covered depression next to a prison, is often the last stop for Kurdish fighters rotating in and out of the frontlines as the confrontation with the Islamic State smolders along 600 miles of desert no man's land.
On an average day business starts picking up around 4pm and lasts until dawn. The clientele is exclusively male and Kurdish. One storeowner is adamant about his refusal to sell to Arabs: "I will not sell them a gun, no matter what price they would pay! I do not trust them anymore."
The majority of customers are peshmerga of all ages, often wearing the traditional monochrome fatigues, sashes swung around their waists, and scarves for headgear. Many bring their young sons, who run around the market with unloaded handguns — rifles are too heavy for them to lift — while their fathers haggle over prices and sip hot candied chai.
The weapons traded here are almost exclusively various Bulgarian, Chinese, Czech, and Egyptian versions of the AK-47. Most of the guns are battle-worn and in need of maintenance. Some stores sell sniper and hunting rifles, as well as RPGs. Ammunition sales are most profitable, since all peshmerga units are constantly undersupplied. American weapons are also trickling in; a few sellers offer M16s or MP5s at $2,800 to $3,500 apiece.
"To gauge the fighting morale of the peshmerga it is not necessary to visit the frontlines," Kamal Mustafa, a 48-year-old store owner and former peshmerga, tells VICE News. "Just check the price tags on the AK-47s here at the market, and you'll find out which side is winning." The price of the guns sold on the market is directly correlated to the fortunes of war. If the peshmergas are successfully defending or advancing on the frontlines prices fall, if they retreat and have to abandon strategically important territory prices rise.
Based on these prices, fighting morale must be high and the peshmerga are standing their ground. The cost of an AK-47 has returned to the pre-crisis average of about $800. Prices for 7.62mm bullets, the preferred caliber for the AK-47, have also dropped significantly from $3 to $1.
In the first week of August, AK-47s sometimes sold for $1,500 to $2,000. After the strategically important city of Gwer, located just 50 miles southwest of Erbil, fell on August 6, prices skyrocketed. Erbil locals flocked to the market, but many left empty-handed. "Even women came to buy weapons, but we quickly ran out of stock," says Kamal's 28-year-old son, Rebwar.
Rebwar explains that typically only peshmerga with formal approval are allowed to purchase guns at the market. Two officials from the General Security Directorate check gun licenses issued by the Ministry of Peshmerga for each purchase in a small booth at the entrance of the market. Civilians are not allowed to own weapons according to the law, in reality every Kurdish household owns at least one rifle. During the crisis, when the KRG government thought that Erbil itself might come under attack, these restrictions were lifted. Not anymore.
"Business has slowed down recently," Rebwar says. "People are not so worried anymore, and many fighters have come here to sell their old guns as the Americans and Europeans started to supply us."
Rebwar is also a peshmerga, who just returned two days ago from the battlefields near Kirkuk on a 19-day leave. He is minding the store while his father and two dozen owners and customers kneel for evening prayers nearby.
While expertly dissembling an AK-47 for cleaning, he recounts his experience at the frontlines.
"We were fighting off da'esh for 23 hours. They were all high on drugs and behaved like drunk people. Two suicide bombers blew themselves up right in front of our line. Then they charged us over and over again. We killed more than 20 of them." The peshmergas lost 12 men due, Rebwar says, to inferior firepower.
American weapons have yet to reach his unit of 2,800 men. "We are not happy with what we have," he says, and points to the rusty firing pin of the dismantled Chinese Kalashnikov laid out in front of him.
"We are able to defend ourselves, but defeating da'esh will only be possible with new American weapons."
Follow Franz-Stefan Gady on Twitter: @HoansSolo