WASHINGTON — While President Bush may have declared that major U.S. ground and air combat is over, fighting on Iraqi streets has not ended. As debates grind on about the government of a postwar Iraq and searches continue for hidden weapons of mass destruction, there is an increasing threat to U.S. soldiers in Iraq and the Iraqi population as well: small arms and light weapons.

Whatever course the United States takes in the rebuilding of Iraq, the reality is that millions of these weapons will have to be dealt with.

Iraq, one of the most heavily armed countries in the world, is believed to harbor enough guns to arm every one of its 24 million citizens. Iraqi civilians also have access to other light weapons, such as rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and bombs — making their arsenals potentially more deadly.

In the absence of a governing force in Iraq, some Iraqis are looking to increase their personal weapons caches in order to protect themselves from looters and roving armed gangs; others want small arms to conduct illegal activities and gain political power. Reports have surfaced that gun merchants have set up shop on the streets of Baghdad, selling AK-47s for as little as $10.

With its pervasive gun culture, Iraq's reliance on small arms is nothing new. Journalists in the field have long reported a saying common among Iraqis: "Give everything to your friend, except your car, your wife and your gun." Guns represent power, domination and strength in a country where war and conflict have been the norm for decades. Even children recognize guns as an important aspect of daily life.

Saddam Hussein had hoped the Iraqi people would use their small arms to rise up and fight off advancing U.S. troops. That didn't happen. It is likely, however, that these millions of military weapons in the hands of civilians will have a significant impact in the aftermath of this war. The lawlessness following the fall of the Iraqi government will make the use of small arms even more appealing for gaining power, committing crimes and causing general insecurity.

U.S. forces in Iraq are being forced to spend an immense amount of time dealing with these vast quantities of small arms. U.S. troops are conducting searches for small-arms caches, destroying recovered weapons and ammunition, and protecting themselves from the danger of an incredibly well-armed population. According to media reports, the 3rd Infantry Division has already come across more than 2.5 million small-arms rounds, 50,000 heavy machine guns, 10,000 grenades, 50,000 rocket-propelled grenade rounds, and nearly 20,000 mines in Baghdad. This is only the beginning. Strategies for arms collection and destruction will be necessary for the foreseeable future.

No matter what steps are taken in the rebuilding of Iraq, the ubiquitous small arms must be taken into account. Demilitarization of combatants, as well as the civilian population, must be an integral part of creating a new democratic and secure Iraq. Demobilized civilians and fighters should be taught the necessary transitional skills to contribute productively to their postwar society. Norms for civilian possession of military small arms need to be created. It does not matter which country, group or organization in the international community takes responsibility for these weapons, only that it must be done. Small arms cannot be forgotten in the rhetoric surrounding the rebuilding of Iraq.

During the 1990s when the civil war in El Salvador ended, the incidence of gun violence and crime increased from its war-time levels. More civilians were killed in the aftermath of the civil war than during the years of fighting. It will be up to those responsible for putting Iraq back together to ensure that small arms are not used to cause more and deadlier problems for the Iraqi people.

Rachel Stohl is a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information.