Iraqis caress their AK-47s

Rumours say the rich are on buses to Syria. Others take up arms - but against what exactly?

Mishal Badr Mohammed was in the Tiger firearms store in Baghdad to exchange his Smith & Wesson revolver for a Beretta 9mm pistol. There was nothing unusual about this, he explained, because all Iraqis are armed with a hunting rifle at home or a pistol in the car. Sometimes you fancy a new weapon. Few new firearms have been imported for 20 years, so all the weapons on display in the shop were second-hand, from late 19th-century, double-barrelled shotguns to a jungle version of the Second World War Lee Enfield rifle. Cheap hunting camouflage gear and plastic decoy mallards lined the walls.

A friendly chain smoker in a chequered headscarf and khaki robe, Mohammed said he lived in Samarra, north of the capital, where he owned an agricultural machinery business.

"We're tribal people," he said. "Our ancestors, the Hashemites, used to carry swords and daggers. We should follow the tradition of our forefathers."

The weapons frequently seen on the streets of Baghdad these days are AK-47s, handed out by the government to militia groups. In organised shows of fealty, Iraqis parade their firearms to show the Americans and the world that they will resist any assault. But after the Gulf war, the millions of weapons kept in Iraqi households were used not against invaders but against Iraqis, as the Shias in southern Iraq and the Kurds in the north rose against the government. The rebellions were suppressed by the military, but Iraqis today know that if there is an American attack, insurrection or chaos may ensue.

Mohammed followed the standard line that it was the Americans, not other Iraqis, who were the threat, but he was clear that he needed his weapon."There won't be chaos. These weapons are for personal defence, and we'll defend ourselves to the last bullet," he said.

Almost 300 miles to the north, in the town of Bashika, on the border with the autonomous Kurdish area, old men with creased brown-paper-bag faces were playing dominoes and cards in the tea shop. Others were sunning themselves like lizards by a wall, under a faded sign for a hairdresser's. The rhythm of the town was slow - spring seemed more imminent than war. It's a diverse area, where Kurds and Arabs mix, sharing between them several religions - Christianity, Islam and a breakaway belief whose followers are called the Yazidis. Here, neighbouring countries rather than America are seen as the threat.

"There is some interference from other sides, not the Americans, but Kurdish, Turkish or Iranian people," said Uday Jalal, a young Yazidi doctor, who was a teenager during the Gulf war. "If they come again, we will defend our town and not permit anyone to take it."

Fighting took place around Bashika in 1991, and townspeople say they drove the Kurds back into the mountains. These foothills are the de facto border with the Kurdish autonomous region where Saddam Hussein's writ no longer runs. As a result, a decade of calm has prevailed in the district, part of the northern no-fly zone that is policed by US and British warplanes. People fear that an American attack will prompt Kurdish peshmerga warriors to come down from the mountains and overrun Bashika again. If they fight, it will not be for Saddam Hussein but for their town.

"In a war, there are no winners," said one of the old domino players, who said he was a teacher. "Even the winner loses."

To Saddam Hussein's way of thinking, the reverse is true - he regards Iraq's defeat in Kuwait as a victory. While the enemy leaders of the era - Margaret Thatcher, George Bush Sr - have gone, he is still around. Even now, he is portrayed in the state media and Iraqi newspapers as a popular world leader, while President Bush is shown as isolated and weak. This month's anti-war demonstrations have shored up that view, and Iraqi TV shows pictures of the massed crowds every day to emphasise the point.

A brittle veneer of normality encrusts Iraqi society, as people go to work, get married, pray, go shopping, just as they always do. Panic buying is not the order of the day, although some say they are stocking up on paraffin and water. Everyone is being given their usual government rations of rice, flour and other essential supplies in quantities designed to last for more than two months, ready for whatever may happen. The Red Cross and other aid agencies are bagging potable water for hospitals and clinics, so if the electricity grid is hit and pumping stations fail at least there will be useable supplies. From here one senses that the crisis is drifting as one report by the chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, leads to the next, and men with the power of life and death over Iraqis bicker in New York and Brussels.

People here weigh their options - rumour has it that the buses to Syria are crowded with those wealthy enough to get out. But most just wait, caressing their guns and hoping they'll never have to use them.

Lindsey Hilsum is diplomatic correspondent for Channel 4 News