Attacks plummet as Shias join Sunnis in neighbourhood patrols to tackle militants and reunite communities
Michael Howard in Baghdad
Thursday December 20, 2007
Under the embers of the wintry evening sun the Tigris river, usually as brown as old boots, had turned almost blood red. Its waters were calm but its oily sheen was disturbed by the oars of a rower as he sculled his way through the city’s fractured heart.
Alone and apparently indifferent to the threat of a sniper’s bullet, Muhammad Rafiq eased up on his stroke rate and tacked over to the shore. He hauled his craft up the bank to a mosque – the temporary headquarters for his rowing club since US soldiers had commandeered its real boathouse in 2003. Inside the courtyard, his forehead beaded with sweat, Muhammad laid a few old blankets over his upturned boat and padlocked the oars to a railing.
“My friends said I was mad when I started rowing,” said the 22-year-old former science student. “They said I would be sharing the river with dead bodies and that people would shoot at me. But it keeps me fit and it keeps me focused for my night work.” As dusk fell, he checked the contents of his kit bag, slung it over his shoulder and jumped into a waiting taxi.
Fifteen minutes later, he had made it through checkpoints and concrete blast barriers en route to his home in al-Amil district of west Baghdad. At a makeshift barricade close to the street where he was born he greeted the sentries as friends. Then he unzipped his kit bag and pulled out a Kalashnikov. And for the next six uneventful hours he stood guard with his peers behind the straggles of barbed wire.
“I help to keep the peace so that I can row in peace, and that is my passion,” said Muhammad, who asked that neither his real name nor that of his rowing club be used. “Now when I go out on the river, you can hear the birds and the hum of the generators. When I began it was only gunfire and bombs.”
Muhammad is one of the thousands of young Baghdadi men to have joined neighbourhood security groups, which have mushroomed over the last year and are a crucial factor in the dramatic decline in civilian deaths. US soldiers call them “concerned local citizens”; Iraqis just call them sahwa (awakening) after the so-called Anbar awakening in western Iraq, which has seen Sunni tribal sheikhs take on foreign-led Islamists.
There are now an estimated 72,000 members in some 300 groups set up in 12 of Iraq’s 18 provinces, and the numbers are growing. They are funded, but supposedly not armed, by the US military. “It is Iraq’s own surge,” said a western diplomat, “and it is certainly making a difference.”
Major General Joseph Fil, the outgoing US commander for Baghdad, said this week that the number of attacks in the capital had fallen almost 80% since November 2006, while murders in Baghdad province were down by 90% over the same time period, and vehicle-borne bombs had declined by 70%.
The city’s neighbourhood security groups vary greatly in form, content and function. But they all appear to have sprung from a shared desire to rise above the sectarian tensions tearing apart large areas of their city.
Though life in Baghdad is still far from normal, and the security situation still perilous, the capital’s remarkably resilient population has begun to believe that the momentum for peace may be sustainable if it is left up to ordinary citizens. “They are filling a void left by Iraq’s feuding and self-serving political elite, most of whom are hunkered down and out of touch in the Green Zone,” said the western diplomat.
Though they are still dominated by Sunnis, the patrols’ make-up increasingly reflects the ethnic and sectarian community they are guarding. An increasing number of Shia are now joining their ranks, some in a bid to counter the influence of Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army in their area.
In al-Amil, Muhammad started as a volunteer but now gets about $10 a day from the local US ranking officer. The same goes for his colleagues. The Americans also gave them combat boots and reflective vests as a kind of uniform.
“We grew tired and angry about the killing, and so decided to act,” said Muhammad. He said his group, made up of friends and acquaintances mostly in their early 20s, began patrolling the streets of his neighbourhood six months ago. Sunni militants from a nearby area had driven into his district, which is still home to Shia and Sunni residents, and shot at a popular bakery. Three people were killed and four wounded as they queued for their morning bread.
“We learned we could not trust anyone who is not from our neighbourhood,” said Muhammad. “This is our area, but it is for all people equally, no matter how or whether they pray.”
A typical night sees them questioning strangers to the area or stopping cars. A couple of guards with rifles station themselves on rooftops to provide covering fire if necessary. They also work closely with the official Iraqi security forces and the US army, passing on, and sometimes acting on, local intelligence about the activities of militants.
Not so long ago Sunni and Shia gunmen were fighting for control of the suburb, near the road to Baghdad’s airport. As a result, the once religiously mixed housing projects that lie either side of al-Amil’s main street soon separated into Shia or Sunni enclaves.
But Muhammad, a Sunni Arab, and his Shia colleagues in the neighbourhood watch group are determined to reverse the ethnic cleansing. Last month, the group agreed to protect a Sunni mosque in his street from local Shia militias. They have also been mediating between the divided communities either side of the highway.
The result was an understanding: Sunni families would return to their former homes in the heavily Shia areas, while Shia families crossed back into the mainly Sunni streets. The two communities agreed to guarantee the safety of the returnees. Such was the popular backing for the deal that even the local Mahdi army commander had to acquiesce.
“We’ve been neighbours for 25 years and we feel like brothers,” said Muhammad. “We will help them to guard and respect their mosques, and they won’t harm me or my family.”
The group has also helped organise local services such as rubbish collection. Meanwhile, in al-Amil, the improved security has prompted an upturn in the area’s commercial life. In the still not-quite bustling main food market, Muhammad explained that “five months ago, a word out of place here could have meant a visit from one of the local militia”.
Now the tensions are the subject of humorous exchanges. “You charged me five dinars more for my vegetables just because I’m a Sunni,” one customer joked with a stallholder. “This sectarianism is good for your business.”
But as the number and effectiveness of the neighbourhood groups increase, so too do attacks on patrol members. At the weekend, gunmen and bombers launched three attacks on patrols in Baghdad. In one incident bombers killed two patrol members and wounded 10 in the Adhamiya area of northern Baghdad, until recently a Sunni Arab militant stronghold. Gunmen also attacked a patrol in another northern area, killing one patrol member and wounding four. In the southern Doura neighbourhood, another former Sunni militant stronghold, gunmen wounded three patrol members manning a checkpoint.
There have also been numerous suicide attacks against “awakening” groups in the volatile Diyala province to the north-east.
There are worries too that the neighbourhood groups will, like the police force they are supposed to complement, be prone to infiltration and exploitation by insurgent, militia or criminal gangs. After all, the security groups are often made up of tribal militias and former insurgent forces that not so long ago fired on US and Iraqi forces. Now they have turned on al-Qaida in Iraq, the Mahdi army, and other extremist groups. “It is inevitable that in a force of 70,000 you get a few bad apples,” said General David Petraeus, the senior US commander in Iraq, who has championed the need “to go local” with security. “But we are taking measures to ensure that they don’t become everyone’s worst nightmare.”
Petraeus said he had persuaded a wary Iraqi government to take responsibility for the funding and future status of the local forces. About 20% will be integrated into the security forces while the remaining 80% will receive some civilian training and involve themselves in public works projects. A national civil service corps is being considered.
Major General Abdul-Kareem Khalaf of Iraq’s interior ministry said the government recognised the work done by the sahwa groups but said: “It is important that there must never be armed groups outside the framework of the law.”
Back at the barricade, Muhammad said he had no intention of joining the police or army. “All I want to do is row along the beautiful Tigris and live in peace,” he said.