In a short video that went viral on social media after it was posted in February, a long line of black-clad Iraqi teenagers display their weapons for the camera.
The youth in the video, shot in Baghdad, claim they belong to an armed faction called Hashd al-Awra. In the recording, they brandish their arms for the camera, one at a time, before assembling as a group.
As soon as the video began to circulate, the security directorate of the popular mobilisation forces issued a statement denying any involvement with the faction and calling on "security agencies to detain and prosecute its members".
The incident, which shed light on the unauthorised use of weapons by individuals and armed groups in Iraq, has raised awareness about the danger this poses to the country's security and stability, officials and civilians told Diyaruna.
It has sparked renewed calls for a firm stance on banning armed gatherings.
Regulating arms possession
Iraq has passed several laws that limit the possession and use of weapons, said Iraqi MP Hakim al-Zamili, chairman of the parliamentary security and defence committee.
On January 28th, parliament approved a law that bans the possession, carrying, selling and repairing of all types of weapons without a license.
The ban also applies to the import and export of firearms and ammunition, with the exception of the security forces and the military.
Parliament is working on other draft laws and regulations that would limit the activity of armed factions and require them to identify their locations and the identity of their members, al-Zamili told Diyaruna.
"After closing the chapter of terrorism, the state will focus next on [tightening] the ban on weapons, enforcing inspections and seizing them according to the law," he said.
There are several laws in force that are designed to regulate the bearing of arms, "but in general implementation is lax", Saad al-Matlabi of the Baghdad provincial council's security committee told Diyaruna.
The state needs to be more firm in disarming and confronting armed groups, he said, "which might claim allegiance to the government, but engage in blackmailing and terrorising civilians".
"Groups that override state institutions have to be treated as outlaws," he added.
Threat to peace and security
The proliferation of unlicensed weapons and armed individuals "not only threatens the peace and security within society but also poses a threat to the political system and state as a whole", said strategic expert and former Iraqi military officer Ahmed al-Sharifi.
"This phenomenon sends a particular message and gives the feeling that the security apparatus is weak and unstable and cannot enforce the law," he told Diyaruna.
This is particularly the case "in areas where political parties wield considerable power at the expense of the state", he said.
"Lawlessness and the lack of robust security in terms of controlling the movement and exchange of weapons provides fertile ground for the emergence of other organised criminal gangs, which might give themselves permission to act freely without a deterrent," al-Sharifi said.
Legislation is not enough
Al-Sharifi stressed that legislation alone is not sufficient to bring the situation under control.
"We have to strengthen the role of [state] institutions, particularly the security forces and the military, when it comes to implementing the law of the land, breaking up partisan allegiances and selecting competent and independent leaders to govern," he said.
The government has to involve its intelligence services more deeply in uncovering and confronting the unauthorised use of arms, he added.
The "Hashd al-Awra" video sounds the alarm about the need to seriously address the issue of armed groups in the country, he said.
"Weapons are now ubiquitous and anyone can get their hands on them," said Abu Zain, a resident of Baghdad's al-Ameen neighbourhood who asked not to be identified by his real name for security reasons.
"Everyone claims to be on the side of the government but we do not know who to believe," he told Diyaruna. "We need immediate action."