The huge numbers of small arms left behind by Iraq's armed forces after the fall of Saddam Hussein could cause instability in the Middle East for years to come, according to a study published Wednesday.

"Millions of firearms suddenly flooded a chaotic social landscape," the 335-page Small Arms Survey (search) said. The number of murders using firearms in Baghdad rose dramatically and "the violence became a major barrier to the restoration of legitimate authority."

The Iraqi people currently control an estimated 7-8 million firearms, although the actual number could be much higher, the study said. This makes Iraq "highly but not exceptionally well armed," and it still has fewer firearms per person than countries such as Finland.

"The concern here ... is we do not know what proportion of these weapons are military style," Keith Krause, the program director for the survey, told reporters. "Iraq now poses a regional proliferation risk."

But it said the impact of firearms in Iraq has been greater because of how quickly and easily members of a disordered society were able arm themselves.

"The collapse precipitated what almost certainly was one of the largest and fastest transfers of small arms ever," the report added.

The survey of global small arms is produced annually by a team of researchers coordinated at the Graduate Institute of International Studies (search) in Geneva and financed by a dozen Western governments. The United Nations adopted a program to combat small arms trafficking at a 2001 conference on the illegal trade in light weaponry.

At least 200,000 non-war-related firearms deaths occur each year — the vast majority of them homicides. Almost half the killings are in Latin America and the Caribbean, which have gradually developed even more severe firearm problems than Iraq.

Latin America does not have a particularly high number of small arms, but far more people are killed per gun than in other regions of the world.

Colombia has the highest gun homicide rate in the world, at 50 murders per 100,000 people, compared with 3.5 in the United States and Germany at 0.2. Venezuela is the next most seriously affected in the region, with 21 killings.

"Several other regions are home to one or more countries affected by exceptional gun problems, such as South Africa and Albania," the report said. "Latin America stands out as the only part of the world where so many such countries are packed together in a single region."

Many of the problems are caused by governments failing to provide security, as people then use weapons to protect themselves and their property, said Krause. "The international community should pay greater attention to the duty of states to treat security as a public good."

The U.S.-led war on terror has caused tighter restrictions on gun ownership, but has also led to permission for U.S. airline pilots to carry guns and the greater use of armed sky marshals. The intensity of the firearms debate is expected to increase in 2004, as some U.S. states try to restrict ownership rights while others pass more permissive legislation.

The survey also said that more international initiatives are needed to stop the proliferation of portable surface-to-air missile launchers, known as MANPADs.

The spread of these weapons has until now been limited by the small number of manufacturers and the extensive training required to use the weapons. But that is changing, the study said.

"The current bout of media attention may have exaggerated the threat of MANPADs, but it has done much to raise international awareness of a threat with the potential to become more acute," it noted.

Governments need to increase stockpile security to prevent proliferation of MANPADs, but it "is a problem that's going to be with us for years to come," Krause said.