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Culture of Weapons Cause for Fear in Post-War Iraq

Security is a top priority for most Iraqis now that the war is over. But some fear the culture of weapons and private militias, if left to flourish, could undermine any attempt at law and order.

The war may be over but not the gunfire. In some neighborhoods, young men shoot rifles or pistols into the air to celebrate the return of electricity. In others, they fire weapons to protest the lack of lights. Other residents have used weapons to defend their homes or shops against looters.

Iraqis acknowledge a free-wheeling culture of weapons will be difficult to change. Weapons abandoned by soldiers or seized from government stockpiles have furnished an impromptu black market for weapons. Russian-made AK-47 assault rifles sell for the equivalent of $50. A Chinese-made assault rifle sells for a bit less. Twenty bullets cost about $1.

That makes it relatively easy to equip a household or a private militia. Sectarian groups have organized their own security forces. Some Baghdad areas have set up their own armed neighborhood watch teams.

Some of the guards dress like soldiers. Others wear scruffy jeans and open-necked shirts. The common denominator is the rifle slung over a shoulder.

Mosques have recruited former army conscripts to guard Friday prayers. One guard at a mosque in the predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Saddam City says he is protecting worshipers from snipers. "I was appointed by the mosque, he says, to protect worshippers from armed fighters still loyal to Saddam Hussein who may be hiding out in the area or from Arabs, he adds, who are paid to attack us," he says.

Zaab Sethna is spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress, a political group that was formed in exile. He worries that a proliferation of weapons could fuel armed anarchy. "It's an armed society and that is part of the history, even pre-dating Saddam. But that's very different from organized groups with an anti-government agenda or some particular agenda," he says.

Religious and ethnic political parties have organized armed wings to defend their interests. As a new Iraq emerges, many ask if their political interests clash, will their gunmen clash too?

Already two main Kurdish movements in the north have several thousand fighters grouped in militias known as peshmerga. Some fought against Iraqi forces along the line that divides the Kurdish north from the center of the country.

An official of the Turcoman party says his group has about 600 security guards. Church leaders in one neighborhood armed a few youngsters to guard an old folks home on the church grounds against looters.

Armed non-Iraqi guerrilla groups like the Iranian Muhajedin Khalq operate in one area of the country along Iraq's border with Iran.

Some 1,800 Iraqi fighters from the Free Iraqi Forces, the FIF, accompanied U.S. forces into Iraq during the war. They serve on joint U.S.-Iraqi patrols. But many also guard the Iraqi National Congress party headquarters and other branch offices.

INC spokesman Sethna expects the FIF and other militias will be integrated into a professional Iraqi army. "The final decision on the FIF hasn't been made," he says. "It will be made by an Iraqi authority. It could be [disarmed]. It could be the basis of an Iraqi army or it could be integrated into a reformed Iraqi army. But other unofficial militias will be disarmed or absorbed into a reformed Iraqi armed force."

Kurdish politician Khasro Jaf says the American military must disarm the country sooner, rather than later. Otherwise, he says there will be anarchy. "If Americans leave too soon, he says, a lot of troubles will exist because some armed militias will exist around the parties," he says.

U.S. military spokesman Captain Rick Thomas acknowledges there are more weapons around than need to be. But, he says the top priority right now is restoring power and water and providing medical supplies. "After that, then it becomes a matter of establishing civil governance that can lead Iraq in the future. And we see a lot of that controlling of the weapons coming during that phase as we shift to civil governance," he says.

Once an interim administration is set up, he says, there can be a police force and justice system that provides a framework of law and order. Then, he says, the need for private security forces will diminish.

That does not mean U.S. soldiers are ignoring the problem.

An American military vehicle passed in front of a mosque in northwest Baghdad on Friday but stopped short when the soldiers noticed a rifle-toting middle-aged man standing on the curb outside the mosque. After waiting for orders from his commander, the American sergeant confiscated the rifle but let the man leave.