Sporting a long blue dress and white headscarf, Umm Omar barely blinks as she whips out a pistol in her garden. For her, the gun is a necessary evil to protect her young family. "I hate the sound of gunfire, but it is the terrorists who have forced me to learn to handle a gun to protect my children and my home," the 27-year-old mother of three says almost matter-of-factly, while deftly handling the weapon. Umm Omar lives with her family in Ramadi, capital of the western province of Anbar, one Iraq's most violent regions. She is among a growing number of young mothers who have learned to use a weapon to fend off insurgents targeting the families of civil servants and security personnel.
"A few months ago, a group of gunmen tried to burgle our home," notes husband Ahmed Karim, a police sergeant whose work frequently keeps him away from home for days at a stretch. "I was not there, but my wife's screams alerted the neighbours," the 32-year-old adds, noting that the gang fled before completing their mission. "After that, I decided to teach her how to use a pistol."
Following the United States-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003, Anbar became the centre of a vicious insurgency that was only put down after Sunni tribes and their militias sided with the US military against al-Qaeda. Today, violence levels are dramatically lower in the province, where safety remains precarious despite major security improvements. Many wives of civil servants, security personnel, elected provincial officials and journalists began arming themselves in June 2009, when insurrectionists attacked the homes of notable residents or members of the police force. In this largely desert province where the arid plain is interrupted by meadows and orchards on both banks of the Euphrates river, the foliage provides effective camouflage for gunmen, whose weapons of choice are handguns and the AK47 assault rifle.