BAGHDAD -- While most Iraqi women live in fear of terrorists and criminals, one small band of women has taken up arms and is prepared to fight back.
Employed by a private security company, the women ride in the front passenger seat posing as ordinary housewives when the company's drivers transport customers around the city in nondescript vehicles.
But their firearms are always close at hand, and they are trained to respond with force if they come under attack.
During a recent training exercise, three cars screeched to a stop in the middle of a Baghdad street, sending up clouds of dust. Four men and women leapt out and dropped to their knees, shouldering guns to confront a team of masked men hiding behind cars and light posts.
"Good, good," shouted Boulos Karam as he strode around in the morning sun, checking out their positions and offering a few words of quiet instruction to one woman in a head scarf.
"They did well," Mr. Karam said later, sweat dripping onto his dark glasses and camouflage vest. "I changed the position of the 'insurgent,' and they saw it and stopped and reacted."
Like others interviewed for this article, Mr. Karam insisted on being identified only by a pseudonym for reasons of security. Such are the risks of attack in Baghdad that even Western-owned security companies fear any publicity that could make them targets.
"Everything is a danger here, a parked car, a man just standing by the side of the street," said Mr. Karam, looking out over a landscape of razor wire, concrete barriers, dust and trash that mark Baghdad's streets after two years of near-daily bombings.
But even as the violence shuts down many avenues to a normal life, for Rana, 35, Xena 31, Muna, 26 and Assal, 24, it has created the possibility of a good paying job and living on equal terms with Iraqi men.
"Before I got into this, I was like a normal female; when I heard bullets, I would hide," said Muna, a stocky young woman in a black T-shirt and black pants.
"Now, I feel like a man. When I hear a bullet, I want to know where it came from," she said, sitting comfortably with an AK-47 assault rifle across her legs, red toenails poking out from a pair of stacked sandals. "Now I feel equal to my husband."
If the work provides personal fulfillment for Muna, her colleague Assal -- a divorced mother -- sees it as a cause.
"I have seen a lot of innocent people die," she said, staring out with intense black eyes. "We are trying to defend ourselves and defend each other. I am doing this for my country."
Like many Iraqis, she has no idea what the future will bring.
"I see today, I don't see tomorrow," she said, voicing a common refrain.
As insurgent and terrorist groups become more proficient in the use of roadside bombs and ambushes, security companies increasingly are finding armored vehicles bristling with automatic weapons are less effective for protecting passengers than low-profile convoys disguised to blend into regular traffic.
That impression, the companies find, is enhanced by the presence of a modestly dressed woman in the front seat next to the driver, appearing to be a housewife out for a drive with her husband.
"We are a low-profile security convoy company. We do our best not to be discovered, and part of that is using women," said Mr. Karam, a veteran of the Lebanon civil war. "We never have been hit while they were with us."
His company initially hired eight women for the duty, four of whom remain on staff. And it has recognized that the women need to be as ready as the men to defend themselves in the event of attack.
"We train them all together, women and men. They are treated as equals," Mr. Karam said.
The training includes how to respond to an ambush, an attack from an overpass and a situation in which a company client is surrounded and about to be killed or kidnapped.
"I had no clue before about locating danger, following danger and working to get out of danger," Muna said during a break between training sessions. "But now with training, we know what to look for if we get hit."
There are areas of Baghdad that still look normal. Lemon and orange trees, date palms and splashy pink bougainvillea have survived the dust and violence, and people still go out and shop at colorful roadside stalls. But the peace is superficial.
"There is danger, I feel it, but we try to live a normal life," said Rana, the quietest of the four, dressed in blue jeans and blue-jean vest, her hair covered with a black scarf out of respect for her Muslim religion and her fiance.
After several months of training, the women say they feel more self-confident and stronger. Although none ever dreamed she would be handling guns or jumping out of cars, now all want more training, especially firing range practice with the Baghdad guns of choice -- AK-47s and 9 mm pistols.
"I used to watch action movies when I was a kid, I loved them," laughed Xena, a conservative Muslim who chose her pseudonym from the film character, Xena the Warrior Princess. "My favorite actor is [Jean-Claude] Van Damme."
Xena has told no one in her family where she works or what she does, because it would only worry them, she said.
All four women learned to handle guns under dictator Saddam Hussein's rule, when all high-school students were taught to use the Russian-made AK-47.
A company official said the women's experience still is limited, but maintained that their contribution is important.
"The training of our female personal security detail is much better than most male Iraqi [personal security details] and guards," the official said.
In between runs, the women sit in an air-conditioned room and watch TV, chatting, drinking Cokes and water.
Their trips take them around Baghdad, as far north as Mosul and deep into the violent western province of Al Anbar.
But always, before leaving, they take down a tiny red-bound Koran, remove the white tissue wrapping and turn to the passages that evoke protection.
"We pray together, we call each other to see if the other is safe," Muna said.