BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Raising both hands in a frantic plea, a woman in a scarf and leopard-print housecoat begged the American soldiers: Don't take away her family's two battered Kalashnikovs.
"Every night we are surrounded by people with guns," Im Shab wailed. "These weapons are to protect ourselves."
In a city bursting with AK-47s, submachine guns and Browning 9mms, U.S. forces are struggling to restore security -- one gun at a time. Terrified residents say the weapons are their only protection against robbers, looters and arsonists who have run wild since Saddam Hussein was overthrown.
As dusk falls, automatic-weapons fire reverberates across the city of 5 million. Residents who spend sleepless nights defending their homes whisper of organized gangs, formed since Saddam emptied the jails in October, that attack businesses, hijack cars and grab women off the streets to rape them.
"Baghdad is like the Wild West now," said Labib Kadri, who manages a gas station.
In some ways, it always has been. This is a culture where guns are used not only to defend, but to make noise, to celebrate and to simply show who's boss.
As frustration mounts over water and power cuts, joblessness and fear, at least one American soldier was fatally shot and another wounded in separate incidents last week.
"The climate is getting worse and worse, so getting these weapons off the streets is a big priority," said Staff Sgt. Thomas DeLuccia of Pasadena, Calif., whose psychological operations team has been shot at almost daily -- in one case, four times in a single day.
Gunshots popped in the distance as DeLuccia pulled into a gas station to check on the snaking lines that have plagued the city because of fuel shortages. Suddenly, a man with a rifle peeked over a church wall.
DeLuccia's team gave chase. Pounding on the church gate, they were admitted by a frightened-looking man in a pink shirt.
First, he denied having guns on the premises. Then he admitted he kept one to guard the church and its graveyard, where gunmen lurk around the tombstones at night. A second gun was found in the crumbling house the man shares with his mother, Im Shab, and four sisters.
Allowed to keep one
U.S. forces allow Iraqi families to keep one rifle in their houses for protection but insist it remain inside. Any weapons spotted in the streets are confiscated and destroyed.
After threatening to take both guns, DeLuccia decided to leave the family with one, though he took care to remove the bayonet. They offered him a red carnation, which he pinned to his flak vest.
Later, DeLuccia's team stopped for kebab sandwiches at a restaurant. After they were gone, the owner pointed out his gunmen -- one on the rooftop, another in the opposite building -- and the rifle stashed under the counter. The soldiers saw none of it.
"U.S. troops are doing nothing yet," Saad Fadiel Ail said. "This is my livelihood. ... How can I manage without a gun?"
In Iraq, U.S. forces accept they are unlikely to get all the guns off the streets. "This is the largest weapons and ammunition dump in the world," said Capt. James Brownlee, spokesman for the Army's 3rd Infantry Division.
Iraqi soldiers abandoned their arsenals when they slipped away. Looters quickly appropriated guns, mortars and grenades, which can be bought from the back of pickup trucks for $5 at one of several gun bazaars.
U.S. forces raid the markets regularly, but merchants quickly regroup once the soldiers have gone.
Along a busy main road, machine-gun fire crackled as customers tested the wares displayed amid rows of gleaming white sneakers, crystal chandeliers and piles of baby rompers -- most of them looted in the mayhem that followed Saddam's fall.
"I never thought I would buy a gun," said Moussa Karim, a graying lawyer shopping for a pistol. "But in these times, I'm afraid -- for myself and my car."
Imad Tariq wandered through the stalls holding an AK-47 for sale. "I have everything -- grenades, AKs, pistols, hunting rifles," he boasted.
On Wednesday, Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, commander of American ground forces, said U.S. authorities were devising a policy to regulate possession of firearms. He did not elaborate.
While U.S. forces have made few inroads into Baghdad's illegal gun trade, Muslim clerics persuaded vendors in at least one market to pack up their wares and leave this week.
"People listen to and respect the clerics," said Imam Majed al-Faflawyi, a Shiite Muslim leader. "Now there is no more gun bazaar."
Kadri, the gas station manager, was more skeptical. He's been dealing with gun-related harassment from the market for weeks.
His assessment: "They just moved to another place."