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The U.S. military says its counterinsurgency campaign is working in part because groups of Iraqi volunteers have come forward to fight insurgents and guard their own neighborhoods. American commanders call them concerned citizens. The commanders acknowledged that the volunteers are paid and trained by the U.S. military, but say they're guided by a spirit of community service. Not everyone agrees including the Shiite-led Iraqi government that says the U.S. is hiring Sunni insurgents and gang leaders to create what are essentially new militia groups.
NPR's Corey Flintoff visited one group in the Baghdad neighborhood of Ghazaliya.
COREY FLINTOFF: The command center at the Army outpost called Casino is located in what was probably the living room of a large but crumbling house in northwest Baghdad. It's now a workspace shared by soldiers from Charlie Company of the 2-12th Cavalry and the Iraqi army's 2nd division. It's noisy with conversations and radio traffic in English and Arabic.
(Soundbite of people talking)
FLINTOFF: One man stands out in this crowd. He's a well-groomed Iraqi in his mid-30s, who's wearing a nearly immaculate uniform, sand-colored cargo pants and a matching shirt with an Iraqi flag patch on one sleeve and a green and gold shield on the other. It's a sharp contrast with the fatigues of the Americans, sweat-stained and worn after 10 months in Iraq and with the rumpled uniforms of the Iraqi soldiers. One other thing stands out about the man. Unlike everyone else in the room, he's not wearing a gun.
Capt. KEVIN JOYCE (U.S. Army; Commander, Charlie Company, 2-12 Cavalry): We formed a group, which will, unarmed, work with the Iraqi army to help secure the neighborhood.
FLINTOFF: Capt. Kevin Joyce is the commander of Charlie Company and the group is called the Ghazaliya Guardians. He says the unit was designed as a neighborhood watch program to help bridge the sectarian gap between the army and the residents.
Capt. JOYCE: There was some mistrust with the previous Iraqi army unit that was here between the Shia army battalion and the local Sunni population.
FLINTOFF: Joyce says he's putting several of the Sunni Ghazaliya Guardians at each checkpoint manned by the Iraqi army. Instead of guns, he says, they have cameras and cell phones.
Col. Rod Ali Hassan(ph) is the Guardians' leader.
Col. ROD ALI HASSAN (Leader, Ghazaliya Guardians): It will change because these guys from this area exactly, so they know everybody. Any strange man, any suspicious car, they just notice that. They call us and we saw this bad guy.
FLINTOFF: The Iraqi army soldiers at each checkpoint are mostly Shiites who live in the nearby Shula neighborhood. Col. Rod says that means their families could be threatened by the Mahdi Army militia if they don't look the other way when known Mahdi fighters pass through their checkpoint. The colonel says his men are Sunnis from this Sunni neighborhood so they're not afraid to report Shiite militiamen when they see them.
Top U.S. commanders like to stress that the members of concerned citizen groups have voluntarily come forward to help their communities. But Capt. Joyce says they are paid and comparatively well paid at that.
Capt. JOYCE: Right now, they are under a contract where they are paid the equivalent of what an Iraqi soldier, a jundi or a (unintelligible) police officer would make. And they work right alongside with them. They are uniformed. They are all 100 percent working for the U.S. Army with the Iraqi army.
FLINTOFF: Not everyone in the neighborhood likes the idea of the Ghazaliya Guardians or the people behind it.
This is Sheikh Ali Abdul Hussein Al-Jaizani(ph) reached by telephone.
Sheikh ALI ABDUL HUSSEIN AL-JAIZANI (Shiite Tribal Leader): (Through translator) We call them Saddam's bastards. They're al-Qaida and bin Laden's people.
FLINTOFF: Sheikh Ali is a tribal leader in southern Ghazaliya, the Shiite part of the neighborhood, where he participated in a recent demonstration against the Ghazaliya Guardians. He insist that members of the group are getting weapons from the Americans though he doesn't offer proof and says these are the same people who used to harbor al-Qaida militants in their houses.
It's after midnight on a baking hot night in Ghazaliya when an American patrol pulls up in an Iraqi army barracks that shared by members of the Guardians.
Unidentified Man #1: Everyone who is not on duty right now? We need to talk to.
FLINTOFF: There seemed to be about a dozen of them here, sleepy young men staggering up from mats on the floor in their under shorts and t-shirts. The Americans are here to check up on the guardians and also to give them an impromptu middle-of-the-night first aid lesson. In a few minutes, the 18 and 20-year-olds are lined up in those neat sand colored uniforms with matching baseball caps and brand-new armored vests.
U.S. Army units have allowed neighborhood groups to carry guns in other areas such as Mahmudiyah, south of Baghdad, and Ba'qubah to the north. Speaking through a U.S. Army interpreter, these guardians say, they, too, should be armed to protect themselves. Most of them say people in the area don't trust the Iraqi army, but that the guardian's presence gives the residence confidence to leave their houses.
Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking in foreign language)
Unidentified Man #2: He said people now walk and go on the road and they are so happy.
FLINTOFF: Sheik Ali says that Sunnis may be happy, but his Shiites are not. At least part of his dissatisfaction may have to do with the fact that he hasn't gotten a piece of the pie.
Sheikh AL-JAIZANI: (Through translator) I'm tribal head. Had the Americans consulted me as to how many men I control? Had they asked me to give 10 out of 100 to protect the area?
FLINTOFF: The sheikh insists that leaders of the Ghazaliya Guardians are ex-soldiers from Saddam's army, that they're from outside the neighborhood, and that they're what he calls prison graduates.
Colonel Rod acknowledges that his rank comes not from the Guardians but from his days as an officer in the Iraqi Special Forces. He is from outside the area, from Abu Ghraib, in fact. And he did spend seven months in the American prison there, arrested, he says, on a mistaken suspicion of being an insurgent. Rod says that's where he won the confidence of American officers and made the contacts that led to his current job.
Col. HASSAN: So, the American have the right to suspicious us because before -three years ago, we are attacking the American.
FLINTOFF: Rod says many former insurgents quickly learned that al-Qaida's ideology offered them nothing, and that they needed the Americans. For his part, Captain Kevin Joyce says the Guardians haven't turned up in U.S. databases of known insurgents or criminals, but he says he knows he may be working with former enemies.
Capt. JOYCE: We have not, in any way, shape or form offered amnesty or a get-out-of-jail free card. But we are saying, right now, if you're willing to step forward, and later comes out that four years ago you helped, you know, move weapons, well, everybody has a past.
(Soundbite of music)
FLINTOFF: The American soldiers who cycle in and out of the casino outpost say things have gotten quieter. Six months ago, when this outpost was first established as part of the U.S. troop surge in Baghdad, they say attacks were frequent. Now, the violence has fallen to a point where they have time to complain about other things like Fox Company being late in delivering their dinner.
Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) I want some chow.
FLINTOFF: Still, they know that some of the people they are dealing with may have been shooting at them or planting roadside bombs not long ago. For the moment at least, they seem willing to see whether the men in the crisp new uniforms can be allies now.
Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Baghdad.
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