Semira Ahmed, a schoolteacher, keeps her battered AK-47 assault rifle in her bedroom closet, next to her dresses, shoes, jewelry and cosmetics. Abbas Mahmood, a shopkeeper, displays his in the living room, on a shelf with pictures of his children. Mohammed Abdullah, a farmer, totes his wherever he goes, because he wants to be ready "to fight at any time."
From dusty villages to the bustling streets of Baghdad, guns are omnipresent in Iraq. They are, as people here are fond of saying, more common than telephones or cars, and perhaps even portraits of President Saddam Hussein. "Everyone has one," Abdullah said. "And some people have two or three."
Over the past two years, Hussein's government says it has trained 1 million civilians in the basics of armed combat and given many of them firearms to keep at home. With Iraq now facing a possible U.S. military invasion, Iraqi leaders are encouraging -- and counting on -- those people to act as a last line of defense in cities and towns across the country.
Iraqi officials say they expect armed civilians to engage in urban warfare with U.S. troops, firing at them from inside houses and high-rise apartment buildings. The officials express hope that if enough civilians join the fight, the Americans, despite air superiority and technologically advanced equipment, will be forced to retreat.
Whether legions of ordinary people will take up arms to defend Hussein's government remains one of the biggest uncertainties of a war between the United States and Iraq. Although U.S. commanders and Western military analysts expect relatively few civilians to put up a fight, the Iraqi leadership says it is confident of just the opposite.
To display their preparations, authorities summoned tens of thousands of weapon-wielding civilians, from schoolgirls to gray-haired retirees, to march this morning down a wide boulevard in Mosul, 230 miles north of Baghdad. It was Iraq's largest display of force in months.
Menacing at moments, comedic at others, the parade featured pot-bellied, middle-aged men waving rocket-propelled grenade launchers, women in heels brandishing AK-47s, ethnic Kurds in traditional dress, workmen in blue boiler suits and a dozen men clad in the white shrouds worn by aspiring Palestinian suicide bombers.
Although the parade appeared designed for foreign consumption, diplomats and analysts said such events have an important domestic purpose: dissuading people who might be thinking of participating in dissent when the war begins by reminding them that their neighbors may be armed and loyal to the government. The parade also may have been intended to send a message to Iraqi Kurds living in an autonomous region whose southern border is less than an hour's drive away.
"We know the Americans are there right now with the Kurds," said one participant. "If either of them try to invade, we will be waiting for them."
Izzat Ibrahim, vice chairman of Hussein's ruling Revolutionary Command Council, saluted from a reviewing stand as the marchers shouted belligerent slogans. "Bush, Bush, hear us carefully! We love Saddam Hussein!" one group screamed. Others opted for the zippier "No peace, no surrender!"
"I wish the Americans would come here," growled Faris Zubaidi, a 42-year-old businessman who was leading a unit of 96 men with grenade launchers. "We will show them our bravery. We will show them we can fight. And we will fight until we win or die."
Zubaidi, who was in the army during Iraq's 1980-88 war with neighboring Iran, said he decided to join the civilian militia when it was formed almost two years ago. Named the Al-Quds Army -- after the Arabic name for Jerusalem -- the militia was assembled on Hussein's orders, in theory to prepare for an invasion of Israel.
At the time, the Al-Quds Army was regarded as a way for Hussein to channel anger among Iraqis at Israel's policies toward the Palestinians and to curry favor among Arabs in neighboring countries. It was coupled with payments of as much as $25,000 to the families of Palestinians killed in the struggle against Israeli occupation, including suicide bombers.
But as the threat of another war with the United States becomes imminent, the militia has made homeland defense its primary role. New training sessions have been scheduled and scores of government employees have been encouraged to participate.
Although the government has not provided a breakdown of militia members -- "They come from all walks of life," a local official said today -- conversations with several participants in the parade suggested a significant proportion are civil servants. The militia members said they did not receive a regular stipend but some said they got $40 for the two months during which they trained.
The government reports that the militia has 7 million members. Western analysts place the figure at closer to 1 million. How many would fight U.S. invaders is anyone's guess. One Baghdad resident who boasted of having an AK-47 and a revolver at home said he had no plans to use them in the event of a U.S. attack.
"It will be too dangerous," said the man, a shopkeeper, who did not want his name published. "People will be firing in every direction. I would be crazy to join in."
What will he do with his guns? "I'll keep them hidden at home," he said. "And I'll stay at home, too."
Others said they intend to fight, but they hinted that their primary motivation would be to try to keep Americans out of Iraq instead of defending Hussein, casting their role as protectors of Iraq's sovereignty and natural resources.
"This is our country," said Ali Ahmed, a teacher marching with a contingent of men in olive-green uniforms. "What right do the Americans have to come here? What do they really want? It's not about weapons of mass destruction. I think they want our oil."
But the message organizers tried to convey today was that everyone loves Hussein. Many marchers wore photocopied pictures of the president on their chests. Others put on colorful stickers with his image. Large portraits of him were placed on the back of pickup trucks that brought up the rear, along with flatbed delivery vehicles mounted with antiaircraft guns.
The large-scale distribution of weapons began during the war with Iran, when the government gave Iraqi-made AK-47s to decommissioned soldiers, members of the ruling Baath Party and tribal leaders. But it has dramatically escalated in recent months. Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said last month that officials had handed out "hundreds of thousands of weapons" since the Bush administration began deploying additional forces to the Persian Gulf.
One group largely left out of the gun distribution has been Shiite Muslims, who make up about 55 percent of the population but whose allegiance has been questioned by Hussein and other top leaders, who are predominantly Sunni Muslims. In 1991, after the Persian Gulf War, Shiites rebelled against government forces in several southern cities. Today, some Shiites still are quietly loyal to a large opposition group based in Iran, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, whose leader has vowed to send fighters into Iraq to oppose Hussein if U.S. forces invade.