Reporters on the Job

Always on Guard: You have to constantly be on your toes in Baghdad these days, says staff writer Howard LaFranchi.

"Iraq has always been a heavily armed country, but now the guns are everywhere and out in public. You have to remember all the time that a wrong move or misunderstanding could get you in trouble," he says.

Howard was reminded of this the other day when leaving Baghdad's "Green Zone" of government offices to meet his driver.

"Walking back to be picked up, I perused the parked cars and identified our driver's car by color, make, and model," Howard says. "I then walked around to the rear passenger side and opened the door - only to catch my breath as a shock coursed through me."

There on the car floor was a load of AK-47s, rifles, and pistols.

The driver of the car turned and jumped when he saw Howard. Clearly he was expecting someone else - just as Howard was expecting an identically upholstered but nevertheless very different back seat. "I blurted out 'sorry, goodbye,' in Arabic, which was all I could think to do. I closed the door and quickly looked around - to see our driver's identical car right next to this one."

The driver of the other car kept a suspicious eye on them, Howard says, and they made a quick exit.

Iraqis say they are used to all the guns, but the atmosphere leaves them uneasy, Howard says. "The problem is we don't really know who they are. Are they from the Army and the police, or some militia or secret group?" one young Iraqi told Howard. "People make jokes about these guys, but no one's really laughing."

Amelia Newcomb
Deputy world editor

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