BAGHDAD - Young men armed and paid by the US military took to the streets of the Iraqi capital's Sadr City area for the first time yesterday to guard their neighborhoods, part of a new strategy designed to recruit former Shi'ite militiamen to American-created security groups, US 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 Shi'ite 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 US officials as the best way to address a dearth of security forces in Sadr City, the site of bitter clashes this spring between US forces and militiamen loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The officials hope it will lead some of the 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 US troops. "Are these guys all going to be lily-white angels? No," said Major Byron Sarchet, operations officer for the brigade with responsibility for Sadr City. "We need to tread lightly."
As the orange fog of a dust storm enveloped the capital yesterday 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."
"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 salaries are distributed by their leader, Bassim Abdullah Qassim, who said he was contracted by the US military to hire and oversee 105 men.
Lieutenant Colonel Brian Eifler, commander of the US 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.
Eifler said he does not inquire whether volunteers belonged to the Mahdi Army. Asked whether he hoped former militia members would apply, Eifler said: "Absolutely."