Last Friday, soldiers from the 3rd Squadron, 89th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division conducted a night patrol through Shorja Market, the most famous market in Iraq, with the Al Sadria Sons of Iraq, or neighborhood watch. Vendors and shoppers pack Shorja’s streets during the day, and a vibrant nightlife continues well past dusk. The market is located in the heart of downtown Baghdad, and was the scene of some of the war’s worst spectacular bombings and sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007. Security has vastly improved in the last seven months. The positive change is credited to the “surge” of American forces, the development of the Iraqi security forces, and especially the efforts of the Sons of Iraq.
Co-founded seven months ago by local leaders and members of the 82nd Airborne, the Al Sadria branch of the neighborhood watch is composed of about 250 members who are paid by and coordinate with American units. The branch is responsible for a series of predominantly Shia neighborhoods in central Baghdad that include part of the Shorja Market. Though leader Faris Abdul-Hassan refers to his group as “the first Shia Awakening” against criminals and terrorists, he refuses to hire anyone with sectarian allegiances.
The neighborhood watch program in Rusafa is a “real success story,” according to Captain John Thornburg, the commander of the 3-89 Cavalry’s Bravo Troop. The Sons of Iraq man checkpoints, patrol the area, detain militants, and are given the majority of credit for improved security by American personnel and some Iraqi Police officials. “They’ve turned one of the most violent areas of Baghdad into one of the most quiet,” said Thornburg.
Improved security and cross-sectarian cooperation
Since the improvement in security, central Baghdad has regained a sense of normalcy. Aside from the legion of security personnel bristling with weapons and ubiquitous concrete barriers, portions of the capital bustle and hum with an energy common to all big cities. At the market, children played in the streets while adults shopped, ate, and socialized over chai. The Sons of Iraq moved easily among them and seemed well-received by the locals.
The southern Rusafa District has undergone an especially dramatic social transformation since the height of the sectarian bloodletting in 2006. The predominantly Shia Abu Saifan area near the market borders a Sunni enclave called Al Fahdel. When al Qaeda bombings and Mahdi Army death squads were in full force, the two neighborhoods became warring camps — extremists had dragged regular citizens into a deadly struggle over sectarian identity. After US troops surged and the Al Fahdel area “Awakened” to drive out al Qaeda, leaders from the two communities met to discuss joint efforts to end sectarian conflict and establish security. The successful negotiations were “literally” marked by “dancing in the streets,” according to Colonel Craig Collier, the commander of the 3-89 Cav. Now both Shia and Sunni Sons of Iraq coordinate efforts to root out remaining al Qaeda and Mahdi Special Groups from the area.
“It’s exactly the type of cross-sectarian story you want to see,” said Collier. “The Shia Sons of Iraq will chase JAM [Mahdi Army] into the Al Fahdel area, and the Sunni [Sons of Iraq] will roll them up.”
Public affairs and avoiding criminalization
In contrast to various openly criminal militias like the Mahdi Army that intimidate and extort the population, the leadership of the predominantly Shia Al Sadria neighborhood watch tries to project a positive image focused on improving the community. It operates much like a tribe, or benevolent militia. Faris was quick to tell this interviewer that he ordered his men to give blood to help civilians hurt in the fighting just north in Sadr City. His men actively meet and greet with the populace, sometimes providing assistance beyond security. Some of these same charitable activities were attributed to the Mahdi Army in the earlier days of the war, however, and questions remain about the extent to which the Sons of Iraq could be also corrupted by criminal activity.
While American officials have heard that the Sons of Iraq take tributes from local businesses, shop owners apparently say that the amount is minimal and justified by the improvement in security. It is also suspected that the leadership of the neighborhood watch organization profits from “Baksheesh,” a regional custom where new employees give up a portion of initial paychecks to superiors in order to secure the job. Despite the inevitable personal angles of the neighborhood watch leadership, Collier asserts that Faris has “a little Robin Hood in him” and honestly prioritizes making the neighborhood safe. Collier believes that close supervision and eventual integration into the Iraqi Police and local politics are the best ways to prevent significant criminalization of the group.
The future of the Sons of Iraq and atmospherics on the Mahdi Army
As US forces drawdown, American officials consider the expansion of the Sons of Iraq’s area of operations. But the neighborhood watch is not considered a permanent institution, though it is probably the most effective security force in the district. The ideal long-term disposition of the group is integration into the Iraqi security forces, especially the inherently local Iraqi Police. But the Sons of Iraq in Rusafa dislike the government and mistrust the police, who they assert are infiltrated “up to 50 percent” by officers loyal to the Mahdi Army. Despite assurances from police leadership that efforts are underway to purge officers with militia loyalties, the process of moving the watchmen into government security forces will be difficult.
Since the relative diminishment of al Qaeda in Iraq, the Al Sadria Sons of Iraq consider the Mahdi Army their main enemy in the district. Support for the Mahdi Army in Rusafa is diminishing as the populace grows tired of the militia’s criminal activity and as the Mahdi operatives clash with government forces. Faris and his men hate the Mahdi Army and consider them on par with al Qaeda.
“They were all corrupted,” said Dhia, Faris’s executive officer. “They have history in crime, robberies, murders, rapes, and all kinds of bad things.”
Despite the overall decline in the Mahdi Army’s support, some citizens affect apathy about the militiamen. Many individuals are intimidated into silence, and some differentiate between the “criminals” running extortion operations and the Mahdi “actually led” by Muqtada al Sadr. Despite these variations, two sentiments were common among all of the citizens enjoying a night out at the Shorja Market: fatigue with violence and criminal activity and appreciation of Baghdad’s improved security.