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Weapon Of Mass Destruction

In Latin America, AKs ended up in the hands of drug cartels and anti-government rebels. Just as the CIA shipped AKs to Afghanistan, it did the same in Nicaragua in the early 1980s, sending arms to the contras in their fight against the Soviet-backed Sandinistas. AKs fueled civil war in El Salvador as well as political and drug-related violence in Colombia. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez recently announced the purchase of 100,000 AKs from Russian stockpiles. He also announced plans to produce AKs in his own factory -- the first time the weapon will be made in the Western Hemisphere.

Before the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan had been considered a moderate Islamic country, but the war emboldened a more virulent strain of Islam, one fueled by accessible weapons and a devastated economy. In the mountainous border area near Pakistan, Saudi-born millionaire Osama bin Laden grew more radical in his views on a holy war -- first against the Soviet invaders, and later against the United States and the West.

Just before the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, bin Laden distributed the first of several videotapes warning the West about reprisals. In these tapes, the al-Qaeda leader is seen with an AK either next to him or propped up in the background. The typical stock footage shows a white-robed bin Laden firing an AK, a symbol to the world that he is a true anti-imperialist fighter.

In their battles against U.S. forces, many al-Qaeda fighters and tribal groups still carry the same AKs that the CIA had purchased more than a decade earlier. The first U.S. soldier to die by hostile fire in Afghanistan -- Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Ross Chapman of San Antonio -- was killed by a teenager shooting an AK.

The AK is also the weapon of choice in the latest "small war" that a superpower believed would be brief and painless: Iraq.

Although coalition bombing in 1991 destroyed much of Iraq's air force, Scud missiles and tanks, Saddam Hussein's regime retained its small weapons, including AKs. By March 2003, when Operation Iraqi Freedom began, Iraqi arsenals included seven to eight million small arms. These weapons -- which U.S. planners did not consider a major threat when the invasion began -- would prove deadly for American troops once major hostilities ended. During the chaos that followed the swift victory, millions of small weapons (mainly AKs) were looted from Hussein's armories. They landed in the hands of nervous law-abiding citizens, but also in the hands of Baathist loyalists and other opponents of the U.S. occupation who used them to start a protracted urban war.

In Iraq, the AK had taken on symbolic power, too. Hussein had been so enamored with the weapon that he had built a Baghdad mosque sporting minarets in the unique shape of AK barrels. His son Uday commissioned gold-plated AKs. And when Hussein was captured, two AKs were found in his underground hideout.

Even the newly forming Iraqi army -- trained by the U.S. military and civilian contractors -- refused American-made M-16s and M-4s. When the Coalition Provisional Authority was planning to outfit Iraqi forces, they were surprised to find that the Iraqis insisted on AKs.

"For better or worse, the AK-47 is the weapon of choice in that part of the world," said Walter Slocombe, senior adviser to the CPA. "It turns out that every Iraqi male above the age of 12 can take them apart and put them together blindfolded and is a pretty good shot."

Now 85, tiny, feeble, nearly deaf, his right hand losing control because of tremors, Kalashnikov is often haunted by the killing machine he has bestowed upon the world. "I wish I had invented a lawnmower," he told the Guardian in 2002.

In Iraq, Sierra Leone, Sudan and elsewhere, today's wars are hot conflicts in urban areas, with guerrillas holding their own against better trained troops. Sophisticated, expensive arms seem no match for AK-wielding rebels who need little training and know the local terrain better. Some call this the new reality of small conflicts.

This sentiment was expressed by Maj. Gen. William J. Livsey Jr. the commandant of Fort Benning, Ga., in the early 1980s, when the military was first integrating computer chips into smart weapons. "Despite all the sophisticated weapons we or the Soviets come up with," he warned, "you still have to get that one lone infantryman, with his rifle, off his piece of land. It's the damn hardest thing in the world to do."

The AK has pierced through popular culture, too. In 2004, Playboy magazine dubbed it one of the "50 Products That Changed the World," ranking it behind the Apple Macintosh desktop, the birth-control pill and the Sony Betamax video machine. Rappers Ice Cube and Eminem mention AKs in their lyrics. And in the movie "Jackie Brown," actor Samuel L. Jackson captures the weapon's global cachet: "AK-47. The very best there is. When you absolutely, positively got to kill every [expletive] in the room."

Yet, for all of his weapon's influence, Kalashnikov receives no royalties for his invention. Recently, he began selling his own name brand of vodka, which has been a hit in Europe and the Middle East and is slated to reach the United States next year.

At times, he remains defiant and aloof, blaming others for the AK's misuse.

"I invented it for protection of the motherland," Kalashnikov told an interviewer. "I have no regrets and bear no responsibility for how politicians have used it."

Larry Kahaner is the author of "AK-47: The Weapon That Changed the Face of War" (Wiley).

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