U.S. Enlists And Arms Patrols in Sadr City

By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 12, 2008

BAGHDAD, June 11 -- Young men armed and paid by the U.S. military took to the streets of the Iraqi capital's Sadr City area for the first time Wednesday to guard their neighborhoods, part of a new strategy designed to recruit former Shiite militiamen to American-created security groups, U.S. officials said.

The program is modeled after a more than year-old initiative, now known as the Awakening movement, to pay men formerly aligned with the Sunni insurgency to turn against it. But the new groups, called "Neighborhood Guards" by the Americans and "Sons of Iraq" by Iraqis, are the first to focus solely on a heavily Shiite area and among the few to acknowledge arming civilians.

Toting AK-47 assault rifles for a $300-a-month salary, the young men are viewed by U.S. officials as the best way to address a dearth of security forces in Sadr City, the site of bitter clashes this spring between U.S. forces and militiamen loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The officials hope the initiative will lead some militia supporters away from violence by paying them to protect the area.

But even officers helping to create the program acknowledge there is risk in supplying weapons to men who may have recently encouraged violence against U.S. troops. "Are these guys all going to be lily-white angels? No," said Maj. Byron Sarchet, information operations officer for the brigade responsible for Sadr City. "We need to tread lightly."

As the orange fog of a dust storm enveloped the capital Wednesday afternoon, 11 young men in the new program stood at the entrance to a street in Jamila, a neighborhood of southwestern Sadr City where they all live. Standing watch from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., they glanced at every car and pedestrian entering the road to make sure they were locals and not strangers who might be up to no good.

Qais Ali, 32, a former taxi driver, wore the unusual standard-issue uniform: tan shirt, tan slacks and a tan baseball cap that said "SMIRNOFF" in blue-and-white lettering.

"We are here to protect our neighborhood and make sure the militias don't take control," Ali said as he waved on a rusty blue car. "These are our homes and it is our responsibility to protect them."

The young men acknowledged, however, that they were all at their posts to collect a wage in a district where unemployment is rampant. The $300 salaries are distributed by their leader, Bassim Abdullah Qassim, who said he was contracted by the U.S. military to hire and oversee 105 men over three months.

Lt. Col. Brian Eifler, commander of the U.S. battalion in Sadr City, said there was skepticism initially that Sadr City residents would volunteer to work with Americans. But he said the turnout has been overwhelming.

More than 270 people showed up one day last week looking for jobs in Jamila, he said, suggesting that fear of Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, is subsiding in at least some parts of Sadr City. All of the applicants are vetted by the U.S. military and must be vouched for by a tribal leader, Eifler said.

But Eifler said he does not inquire whether they belonged to the Mahdi Army. When asked if he hoped former militia members would apply, Eifler said: "Absolutely."

"They maybe were out riding the fence and now they have a chance for good solid employment," said Eifler, 39, of Detroit. "I think that's an opportunity."

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