BAGHDAD, Iraq—The Iraqi capital these days appears to be awash in gunmen waving or shouldering automatic rifles.
Members of a Sunni Muslim-led exile force suddenly set up checkpoints and snarl traffic in one neighborhood. Kurdish bodyguards screen visitors outside political party offices in another. Shiite Muslims pile into mosques for Friday prayers, casually toting AK-47s they stole from government storehouses.
Three weeks after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's government, quasi-independent militias are carving out turf in the 2,000-square-mile capital, mostly along sectarian lines, much like the Christian, Sunni and Shiite militias that bedeviled Beirut, Lebanon, or the clans that sliced up the Somali capital of Mogadishu.
Part neighborhood watch, part self-styled self-defense force, the Baghdad militias have armed themselves from the ocean of Iraqi army weapons that flooded the streets after the collapse of Saddam's iron-fisted rule.
So far, U.S. policy is primarily to leave the militias alone—U.S. troops are under orders to confiscate only those weapons they see while on patrol. When a new political system emerges, the U.S. theory says, Iraqis might abandon their flourishing, freewheeling weapons culture.
"As they taste the freedom they've not been accustomed to for several generations, that is going to be one of the things that they themselves are going to want to eliminate," said U.S. Army Capt. Rick Thomas, a military spokesman.
That might be wishful thinking.
Iraq has long been an armed society, and especially since amassing a million-man army for the 1980-88 war against Iran. Whole generations of men have been militarized on behalf of the state and know how to fight and handle weapons. Now, their American-won freedom has uncorked a skill-set that for 30 years remained under the strict supervision of Saddam's all-intrusive Baath Party security apparatus.
What that will mean to Iraq's future is anybody's guess. In Beirut in the 1980s, the militias became powers in their own right, carving the city into armed camps that warred among themselves for years, leaving Beirut a pockmarked ruin.
That sort of sectarian violence has yet to take place in Baghdad. But there's no doubt that people are armed in great numbers.
_Thousands of gunmen appear each Friday in the slum formerly known as Saddam City, with the blessings of some Shiite clerics, ostensibly to protect worshippers. Members, who say they answer to the sheiks at the Hikma mosque, claim they're 5,000 to 6,000 strong and on guard against attacks from any leftover Fedayeen Saddam or other Baath Party loyalists.
"I am taking orders from the mosque. I am a soldier," said Samer Elias, 28, a former Iraqi Army infantryman commanding a checkpoint a few blocks from the mosque.
_Some Armenian Christians privately confided, at the height of the looting that followed Saddam's fall, that they had bought assault rifles on the black market and posted Boy Scouts in a senior citizens' home beside a church.
The U.S. Army has since put troops in and around the Armenians' eastern Baghdad neighborhood, and runs regular armored patrols. Nevertheless, members of the community, who see themselves as a fragile minority in this mostly Muslim nation, have kept their weapons and won't discuss their incipient self-defense forces anymore.
_Kurdish political parties have posted a few armed fighters at their Baghdad offices to inspect all visitors and guard against attack. They're the vanguard of an estimated 30,000 Kurdish forces, roughly 15,000 each in the Kurdish Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, loyal to Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talibani, at times rival warlords for leadership of Kurdish northern Iraq.
_Communist Party leaders say they have a secret military wing in northern Iraq, but they won't say how big it is or how many members have slipped into the capital.
_The Iraqi Turkmen Front claims that a few members of its 600-strong security team have moved into the capital from Irbil, in the north, to secure a new party office near al-Mustansariyah University.
But the best-organized, most evident Iraqi militia is the 1,800-strong Free Iraqi Forces who answer to Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, the Pentagon-backed opposition movement that's set up shop at the Iraqi Hunting Club in the desirable Mansour District.
A blend of Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites, they are exiles who started arriving in the capital three weeks ago as guides and translators for U.S. forces. They wear camouflage fatigues, just like those worn by American soldiers, except that the patches on their chest say "FIF."
Some patrol the city with the U.S. soldiers. Others secure Chalabi's headquarters, frisking visitors at the gate and sometimes setting up checkpoints to screen traffic in parts of Mansour, creating the impression that the district that once was home to many Saddam loyalists is now Chalabi-land.
Now, the FIF is seeking U.S. funding and training for 45,000 volunteers, recruited from Iraqis who have remained in Iraq, to complement the exile forces for what Chalabi envisions as "the nucleus of a new Iraqi army," said spokesman Zaab Sethna.
The INC is hoping that Washington will disarm rival groups and integrate former opposition forces into a united, reformed Iraqi army.
"In a democratic Iraqi state, there is no room for militias or private armies," Sethna said. "There will have to be disarmament, and we do hope that is something the United States will take on before they leave this country. There is no room for private armies in a democratic state."
Others say disarmament is essential so that U.S. troops can leave Iraq.
"Nobody likes the foreigners to be around the country," said Khasro Jaaf, a Kurdish activist who lives in a neighborhood guarded by Kurdish militiamen. "But at this particular time, if no American anchor exists, a lot of trouble will emerge in the armed militias around the parties."
But even the Americans have limits. Last Friday, outside the Mother of all Battles Mosque in the al Shaawla section, armed men from the predominantly Sunni area piled into the sprawling walled complex topped with minarets made to look like Scud missiles.
Then U.S. Army Sgt. Joshua Cardenal passed by on patrol, skidding his Humvee to a halt when he spotted a single gunman headed to worship. He consulted a commander by radio, and then gingerly took the weapon from the man's hands, over Iraqi protests that dozens of men in the mosque were also armed.
But mosques are strictly off-limits to U.S. troops, he said, so he would not try to disarm the other worshipers.
Cardenal said he doesn't make policy. "If it were up to me, I'd let nobody have a rifle," he said. "You never know what's what and who's who. It's not as though they screen these people."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.