Iraqi public well-armed and wary

Iraqi civilians are dusting off their firearms, constructing oil-filled trenches and preparing for civil unrest.

With a gun culture that closely resembles that of the United States, Iraq is one of the most heavily armed societies in the world. Its tradition of self-reliance and hard desert and mountain living puts it on a gun-per-person level rivaling other clan systems in Yemen or Somalia.

As US military strategists look ahead to a possible war in Iraq - and a postwar period of working with the Iraqi people to establish more representative rule - firearms loom large. What Iraqis do with those weapons if the US launches an invasion will determine success or failure for Washington. Most war plans, including a United Nations postwar contingency plan leaked in New York last week, assume a swift fall of the regime, and little Iraqi resistance.

But even as Iraq Sunday continued destroying its Al Samoud 2 missiles - bringing the total to 46, more than one-third of Iraq's total Al Samoud force - Iraqis on the home front are stockpiling bullets, dusting off corroded old guns, and receiving freshly minted assault rifles from the ruling Baath Party.

"We tell the Americans: We are prepared for them," says Abdulamir Nasir al Abbudi, a dapper, older Iraqi in a jacket and tie with a white scarf. "My grandfather has a gun from 1895, and I'm going to use it to kill American soldiers. I'm keeping this gun in my hand. I also have a pistol and a Russian Kalashnikov - all Iraqis have these."

Iraqis warn that they are far from convinced that US troops will be seen as liberators, and say instead that they will resist any American occupation.

Sand-bagged positions have been popping up in downtown neighborhoods, and Western witnesses have seen trenches filled with oil on the northern edge of the city that could be set alight to block visibility and confuse oncoming forces.

Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein dismissed the significance of giving up the Al Samoud missile (the name means "steadfastness") when he spoke to senior commanders late last week, and made clear that Iraq is not wanting for arms.

"You are the Samoud missiles," Mr. Hussein said, pointing at the officers. "This is the spirit of the Iraqis, their determination to defend their country."

On Thursday, Hussein praised the "determination" of Iraqis to defend themselves, "even if the fighting was confined to one with rifle and hand grenade," according to the Iraqi New Agency.

Just days before, infantry battalion and regiment commanders told Hussein that two months of ammunition had been stored, that drills for "defensive battle and urban combat [had been] executed," and that soldiers were dug in to minimize casualties from air bombardment.

One officer reportedly vowed to fight with stones if ammo ran out. Hussein reassured him that "arms are plenty."

Although France, Russia, and Germany are redoubling diplomatic efforts to stop the US and Britain from invading, and Friday's report card from UN weapons chiefs Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei might be described as a passing grade, few here think war can be averted.

Civilian UN workers began pulling out of the demilitarized zone yesterday between Kuwait and Iraq, just two days after US Marines in civilian clothes were found cutting 25-yard gaps in the border fence that could accommodate armored columns invading Iraq.

The sense of impending conflict means business is picking up at the capital's 43 gun shops, even though they are only licensed to sell hunting guns or pistols. Customers are stockpiling bullets or shotgun cartridges, says Wiham Ghazi of the "Free Bird" gun shop, whose 12-gauge shotguns and .22 caliber rifles hang from gun racks on the wall of his shop, emanating a faint scent of gun oil.

"It's our culture that people keep guns in their houses - it's inherited from our grandfathers," says Mr. Ghazi, sorting through an array of pistol bullets. Among the ammunition selection is a 12.7mm bullet for a heavy machine gun, with the red-painted tip of a tracer that burns bright as it flies.

"People are buying these kinds of guns just to protect themselves, in case of conflict," Ghazi says, adding that one customer Saturday morning came in looking for bullets for his father's .45 caliber pistol, which had been "put aside for years."

To explain their bond with weapons, Iraqis are fond of the modernized version of one traditional saying: "Give everything to your friend, except your car, your wife, and your gun."

Shotguns here go for just $100; Iraqi-made "Tariq" 7.65 mm pistols cost $200. AK-47 assault rifles, the same gun being offered to Baath Party members, sell for $250.

Iraqi concerns are two-fold: They are worried about the fallout from an American invasion; and they worry that civil unrest could erupt, as it did in 1991.

The result of the latter fear is that urban areas since then have been armed as never before.

"No one would come close to a house at night, because everyone has guns," says a young educated Iraqi, who asked not to be named. "I tell people - and all the neighbors know it - that anyone who crosses this door will be shot."

While it may appear ironic to US planners that the regime is further arming potentially rebellious party cadres and tribal groups, this Iraqi says that his people will do anything to avoid a repeat of 1991.

"We learned that lesson of 1991 - it was something more than awful," says the unaccompanied Iraqi, speaking in English . "People will try to stop that kind of chaos, because once [gunmen] finish with this [person], and move on to the next, they may touch my family."

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