BAGHDAD, March 17 (UPI) -- It is common these days to see Iraqis brandishing their rifles in the streets of Baghdad. Such gestures have been encouraged by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to show readiness to confront U.S. invaders.
But it also raises fears of a civil war that could break out in a security vacuum that might develop if Saddam's regime is toppled in what seems to be an imminent U.S. war on Iraq.
In Baghdad's neighborhoods, rich and poor, it's inevitable to encounter a man with a weapon in one hand and a bag of food in the other. If someone stops to shop in one of Baghdad's stores, he can clearly see a rifle or a pistol in the shop's corner.
"My father and grandfather fought the British (colonial) forces with this weapon," 40-year-old Abu Hussein said at the Rafidain boutique, brandishing an old rifle. "It is time to use it again to combat another kind of invasion, which will also be an occupation but in a different way."
Iraq was formed by the British out of three provinces of the Ottoman Empire that was defeated in World War I.
Abu Ali, who runs al-Sakr arms shop, said sales of rifles and pistols had been rising since the United States began to mass troops in the region.
"I am selling two or three weapons a day, double what I used to sell," Abu Ali, 50, said.
He noted that soaring prices for such licensed weapons, ranging from $50 to $500 each, didn't prevent Iraqis from arming themselves although they faced difficult economic conditions.
Abu Nisrin, a 28-year-old merchant, said he would buy a pistol so he and his father could defend the 11-member family with two weapons at home. Both men are trained to use firearms.
Abu Daniel, who owns a photo shop, expects combat in the streets and said the Iraqis have a right to defend their houses and honor.
Abu Hussein, a building watchman, was keeping a machinegun at home. He was trained to use it a long time ago.
"Inshallah (God willing) we will be ready for war and if (U.S. President George W.) Bush is a hero, let him bring his soldiers to Iraq ... On the ground, it will be a different matter," he said.
An Iraqi political analyst, who requested anonymity, said that Iraqis arming themselves was an old cultural phenomenon. But he said it had recently increased with encouragement from Iraq's rulers.
After the Palestinian uprising broke out, Saddam formed a Jerusalem Army that Iraqi officials said attracted some 7 million volunteers. They received military training in camps across the country.
In addition to the Jerusalem Army, all members of the ruling Baath Party, estimated at 3 million, and tribes were also well armed. Guns have also been distributed to workers, farmers and student volunteers.
Among the thousands of demonstrators in Baghdad on Saturday, who were protesting against the looming U.S. war, hundreds wore black headbands.
"The black band is a sign of martyrdom," said Nawaf Bandar. "We are all guerrillas and ready for martyrdom. Once they (U.S. soldiers) cross our borders and desecrate our land, we will blow ourselves up."
Bandar, 30, pledged to resist U.S. attempts to topple Saddam.
"They want to change the regime," he said. "We will not allow them to do so. This is our president and we want him. It's our decision and not theirs."
An Arab diplomat expressed fears over the spread of weapons among Iraqis, as "no one knows at whom these weapons will be pointed and after a U.S. strike we might see a new Iraq, in the Lebanese or Algerian style."
The diplomat was referring to Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war where Christians and Muslims were engaged in bloody fighting, as well as to continuing violence between Islamist militants and the army in Algeria.
"We fear a fierce civil war if there is a security vacuum after the U.S. strike," the diplomat told United Press International.
"Saddam oppressed the Shiites who constitute 70 percent of the people while he favored the Sunnis and gave them more than 50 percent of the government's top posts."
Most observers put the Shiite proportion of Iraq's 23 million people at about 50 percent.
Longstanding hatred and a desire for revenge, to be expected in a tribal society like Iraq, plus increased poverty and religious devotion, indicated possible chaos and a breakdown of security.
But Hani Ashur, an Iraqi analyst and university professor, ridiculed the diplomat's fears.
"For 100 years, Iraq has never witnessed a sectarian conflict," Ashur said. "No incident has been recorded that a Sunni attacked a Shiite mosque or vice-versa."
Mohammed Ibrahim, who works for the Saudi-owned al-Arabia satellite TV news channel, appeared confident the Iraqis would point their weapons at U.S. forces.
"We will receive them with bullets and not with flowers," Ibrahim said. "Who ever bets differently is mistaken."
However, it is hard to predict how Iraqis, used to remaining silent after living under an iron-fisted regime for more than 30 years, would react to heavy bombardment by the United States.
"The (Saddam) regime will stay," Ashur concluded. "The U.S. strike will only destroy Iraq."