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."
Not all Iraqis agree. Lt. Col. Yehiye Rasul Abdullah, commander of the Iraqi army battalion in Jamila, recoiled at the idea of working with supporters of Mahdi Army fighters who killed his soldiers.
"Those who have contributed to the spilling of Iraqi blood, we will never accept them," he said after coming to check on the guards.
The 11 men on duty Wednesday were carrying some of the 48 AK-47s that Qassim said the U.S. military supplied him Tuesday. He said that the Americans did not have enough weapons for all of the men at the moment, but that the Iraqi military pledged to provide the rest.
"Neither the American military nor the Iraqi army were supposed to hand us weapons -- each volunteer was supposed to bring his own from his house," Qassim said. But at an initial meeting of 65 guards, it turned out that only five owned rifles. "So the Americans realized they had to help."
Eifler said the AK-47s came from seized weapons caches and that the U.S. military would continue to provide them as needed to the guards.
"Guys can't just go out and buy an AK-47 -- there's no AK-47 store," he said. "So we'd rather make sure these guys are outfitted and give them a job instead of having them turned away."
U.S. military officials began planning the new program as early as May, when troops were engaged in deadly fighting in Sadr City. They wanted to base the initiative on a U.S. program known as the Awakening movement among Iraqis but called the "Sons of Iraq" program by Americans. About 103,000 men across the country are involved, and more than 80 percent are Sunnis, the military says.
Lt. Col. Frank Curtis, commander of a civil affairs battalion in Sadr City, was put in charge of creating a version of the program tailored to the Shiite area of more than 2 million people. As he prepared last month to present the program to a local Shiite leader, he took a standard proposal used elsewhere in the country and crossed out the words "Sons of Iraq."
Underneath it, he wrote: "Neighborhood watch." No one wanted Shiites to boycott the initiative because they thought it was tied to a program dominated by Sunnis.
It was just after 6:30 p.m. on May 7 when Curtis and other U.S. officials sat down with the leader of Sadr City's Neighborhood 512, picked as the launching site for the program because it was a peaceful, relatively affluent area.
The leader, Kadham Saddam Manshad, nodded in excitement as Curtis described the initiative. But when it was proposed that he lead the group, Manshad looked startled. "Working with the coalition forces is risky," he said. "I do not want to be the public face."
U.S. officials began to worry that perhaps no neighborhood leader would participate. "I have to say: That meeting didn't go very well," Sarchet, the operations officer, said after the gathering. "Are we going to get this off the ground?"
But they soon found Qassim, 41, a former mobile phone card merchant who is now making nearly $4,000 to run the program. Among the volunteers is Manshad. "I just talked to him today," Eifler said, "and he said, 'I want to be in now!' "
The Americans have renamed the program "Neighborhood Guard." Eifler said the Iraqis told him the phrase "Neighborhood Watch" made them sound like spies. But the Shiite men on patrol Wednesday said they call themselves "Sons of Iraq," despite the possible Sunni connotations.
"Why would I be embarrassed by this name?" Qassim said. "Sunnis or Shiites, we are all the sons of Iraq."
Special correspondent Saad al-Izzi contributed to this report.