With each pitch of his shovel, new droplets of sweat formed on Shakir Mahmoud's suntanned forehead as he dug into a pile of garbage that had collected among the brown, neglected shrubs growing in the median of a wide boulevard.

The city was just waking up around him, and it was quiet except for the sound of metal shovels hitting pebbles and the swish of soft broom bristles on the dusty street. Occasionally, a car passed, the driver slowing to take in the scene.

Mahmoud, 26, tall and thick-necked, is one of 21,000 laborers and 5,100 students being hired this month as part of an enormous effort to rid Baghdad of the mountains of food waste, soda cans, plastic bags and spare car parts that have piled up since the U.S.-led invasion 16 months ago.

The garbage has been one of the most visible signs of the disorder that followed the war. Residents complained that the only way to get rid of it was to bribe municipal trash collectors, who simply moved it to another neighborhood.

Since the beginning of July, the city of Baghdad, through a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), has spent $12 million hauling off the garbage. The program has two goals: to clean up the city and to create jobs for the unemployed.

"People need to think that Baghdad is their home," said Alaa Mahmood Tamimi, the mayor. "Just as we are responsible for our private house, we have a responsibility to keep Baghdad clean. We need to re-create this link between the city and the citizen."

Residents said that link was broken after the war, when looters demolished government buildings, stealing anything they could carry away. With a U.S.-led government in control, people said it was hard to connect to their municipal leaders, who had little autonomy under the occupation.

Another phenomenon was also playing out; many Iraqis were using their newfound freedom as a license to do anything they wanted. If traffic backed up, they would drive on wrong side of the road, a practice that continues. For many people, freedom also meant they could chuck their trash out the window of their cars, and nobody would fine them or even try to stop them. Police were busy chasing car bombers and insurgents.

Adel Abdul Hamed, 76, was walking home from a mosque in his neighborhood, Ameria, when he passed a large park, once green and filled with children and men strolling with their prayer beads. The park is now littered with garbage, including a large broken generator and a burned-out minibus.

"I cannot blame Baghdad municipality or the U.S. forces for that because they do their best to help the Iraqi people," he said, his brown eyes taking in the trash-strewn park from behind plastic spectacles. "I just saw a woman throw her trash in the park and I asked her, 'What are you doing? You are putting your country in hell.' She never paid any attention."

His wife, wearing an orange dress, came out of their house to listen to the conversation. After a few minutes, she interrupted. "Before, in Saddam's regime, we didn't have these things," she said. "But the people think this is freedom."

In another neighborhood, Asia Shawkat, 46, and her brother, Ragheed Shawkat, 35, gingerly walked around a green stream of rotten-smelling sewage water that had pooled in their street. Three dead cats floated belly-up in the water, their paws outstretched stiffly.

Asia Shawkat said her family had lived with the sewage and garbage for two decades. Her largely Shiite neighborhood was ignored by former president Saddam Hussein, who directed the city's municipal services to his supporters.

"Even my children cannot play outside," she said. "When will they solve our problems? We're humans. My children get sick, and sometimes we fall in this dirty water."

Ragheed Shawkat said municipal workers came only when neighbors bribed them.

"Maybe someone can hear our voice and solve our problem," he said, pointing to the dead cats.

Muhanned Daher, an Iraqi engineer who works for Zozik Group, a Maryland-based company that manages the cleanup program for USAID, said that during the 1990s, Iraqis used to collect garbage and throw it in vacant lots, creating mini-landfills that were not ideal but kept the streets free of trash.

But after the war last year, he said, people started building houses on the empty lots, leaving no place for the garbage. They couldn't put it out on the street, he said, because the municipal collectors would not pick it up.

One recent morning, Daher drove through the Karrada district on his way to check on the workers clearing the median. He passed a group of men in the shade, leaning on their shovels. Daher ordered the driver to stop the car. He opened the door and leaned out, his voice raised. "Why haven't you started working?" he asked. "Don't wait for the supervisor. Start working."

Daher said cleanup crews are paid daily as an incentive to get people to work.

Laborers are paid 6,000 dinars a day, or about $4, for a seven-hour shift. Their supervisors are college students who earn 8,000 dinars a day, or about $5.50.

People looking to get on a trash crew in the Karrada district begin showing up at Wathiq Square just before 6 every morning. They are divided into three shifts, which work almost around the clock.

One recent morning, about 250 men of all ages, and in a mix of Western and traditional tribal dress, waited in small groups to be sent into the neighborhoods.

Ahmed Hatim, a 20-year-old college student, said he had another job at night, working in a clothing shop. But Hatim, who had been on the job for 10 days, said he joined the trash crew "to serve my city." He paused and smiled, adding: "It's good pay. We thank God for these jobs."

Mahmoud, who wore black jeans and an orange shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, said he had been working on a trash crew for about a month. "I needed the work," he said, swiping at the sweat that trickled down his face. "There are no other jobs."

Safa Razouki, 26, a blue baseball cap pulled low over his face, scooped up another mound of trash nearby. The crew had been working on this particular median for two days, and it was still covered in litter.

"I don't like this job," he said, as a truck pulled up with another five or six workers, "but I have no other choice."

While Mahmoud and Razouki cleared the median, the newly arrived laborers began picking up trash that had collected against the wall of a residence, where someone had scrawled in Arabic, "You are a son of a donkey if you throw trash here."

Yousif Hana, 55, a resident of the neighborhood, picked his way past the workers as he crossed the median during his morning walk. He held a black umbrella to protect himself from the blaze of the sun.

"Before the war, it was very beautiful," said Hana, a retired physics teacher who still dressed the part in a white, short-sleeve, button-down shirt tucked into creased black pants. "After the war, people started to pile up trash here. The municipal vehicles didn't come here, and when they did, they wanted bribes to take the trash."

Hana said he hoped the median would stay clean after the work crews left.

"The problem starts with the people," he said, strolling off with his umbrella twirling between his fingers.

Special correspondents Luma Mousawi and Omar Fekeiki contributed to this report.

Safa Razouki, one of thousands of Iraqis working to clean Baghdad's streets, scoops up trash that has accumulated since the U.S.-led invasion.