Scared women are packing pistols in Iraq

As growing insecurity spreads through Baghdad, women are turning to firearms and armed guards to protect themselves.

BAGHDAD // Each night before she goes to sleep, Umm Shekar checks to make sure her pistol is loaded and tucks it beneath her mattress. Increasingly worried about being robbed by criminal gangs or insurgents, the mother of six bought the weapon so she could defend herself and her family.

Her husband, a clothes importer-exporter, spends much of his time outside of Iraq, adding to her sense of vulnerability. "Even when the situation was at its worst [in 2007], I never thought to have a gun. It's not something I ever needed," she said. "Now I do. Now we have hired a security guard for the house and I have my pistol." She decided to buy the weapon after a series of deadly robberies during the last two months in her Baghdad neighborhood. A close friend to Umm Shekar, a young mother, was killed, shot dead in her home at night.

"There was a police post right outside their house but still the robbers got in," Umm Shekar, aged in her mid-30s, said. "That proves we cannot trust the security services to do their job. If you want to be safe, you must depend upon yourself." Simply hiring an armed guard was not enough to put her mind at rest because, she said, people you pay to protect you can easily be paid to betray you. "I trust nobody when it comes to keeping my family safe," she said. "This area used to be secure and I wasn't worried. Now even the important political people with their bodyguards are getting assassinated."

She is far from being the only woman in Baghdad arming herself since the March elections, as growing insecurity permeates much of Iraq's capital. Hassan Hafez, the owner of a long-distance haulage company, bought his wife a pistol from a black market arms trader, so that she could defend herself while he is away. His regular trips between Baghdad and Basra, 550km to the south, mean he is not at home two or three nights a week.

"We are more scared than we were before," he said. "I have an AK-47 in the house, which I've taught my 16-year-old son to use, and we have the pistol for my wife." Mr Hafez now takes his family outside the city and instructs them on how to load and shoot the weapons, something he had hoped he would never have to do. "There are more robberies now and if you get robbed here, they don't just take your money, they murder you as well," he said. "For that, I don't trust my neighbours or my friends, or even relatives outside of my close family. I trust my wife and my two children."

The United States, which pulled its last major combat unit out of the country last week, maintains that security is not deteriorating. It refuted Iraqi government statistics showing July was the deadliest month in two years, saying the figures of 535 people killed and more than 1,000 wounded were "grossly overstated". The US still has 56,000 troops in the country to advise the Iraqi military. Iraqi officials stress they are not losing control and are reinforcing the army by recruiting thousands of new soldiers. They insist that hard-core extremists from al Qa'eda are being increasingly squeezed, unable to finance or carry out as many operations as before.

This lack of funding, according to Mr Hafez, was one of the reasons robberies were on the increase. "We've seen that extremists groups, from Sunni and Shiite sides are active again and for that they need money, which is why they are targeting families and businessmen," he said. "They used to get their money from supporters or from neighbouring countries. Now they don't, which means they come to rob us."

It is not only businessmen who are getting weapons for spouses. Iraqi police officers are also buying them. In Sadr City, once a stronghold for the Mahdi Army militia, Hassan Sumrar works the night shift in the Amdasar police station. "The extremists now want to get to us however they can, and they'll kill our families if they have the chance," he said. For that reason, the 45-year-old teaches his wife how to use the pistol he recently purchased for her.

"There's no time for normal family things. I don't get to spend romantic evenings with my wife," he said. "I'm just teaching her again and again how to load, aim and shoot the pistol and a rifle." He said they had both been reluctant to take the step, but had eventually agreed they must. "The security is getting worse. We have a political crisis," Mr Sumrar said. "I've been in the police for five years, but this is the first time I've taught my wife about shooting.

"I know it's dangerous to have guns in the house and we keep them away from the children, but she must do this. It's the government's job to protect the people but the security services are too weak." In Baghdad, the weapons seller Aziz Jameel said there was a "fever" of pistol buying underway, mainly men arming their wives, but journalists and shop owners are buying too. A pistol costs between US$1,200 (Dh4,400) and $1,400, including ammunition, so only the affluent can afford one.

The weapons trader said his business was carried out with the tacit approval of local security officials, who were among his customers. "People are getting robbed in daylight and everyone knows the number of robberies is going up," he said. "In the past I would sell to militia groups or resistance fighters. Now I'm only selling to ordinary people. "To be honest about it, I'm thankful that the security and political situations are so bad. It's good for my business."

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