BAGHDAD — Ordinary Iraqis helping take responsibility for neighborhood security and earning money while doing so are contributing to hopes for a continued downturn in violence in Baghdad in the new year.
Nevertheless, the year got off to a bloody start yesterday, when a suicide attacker killed at least 32 men gathered in eastern Baghdad to mourn the death of a retired Iraqi army officer, a Shi'ite who was slain last week in a car bombing blamed on al Qaeda in Iraq.
The attack was a reminder of the dangers that persist despite the recent decline of violence in Baghdad and of the peril for any mass gathering in a country where the bereaved often find themselves targets.
Still, the rapid growth of Sunni Muslim forces opposed to al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden marked a dramatic turnaround from the abysmal first four years after the U.S. invasion.
In the volatile Adhamiya District of eastern Baghdad, for example, Iraqi Security Volunteers, or ISVs, last month found a large cache of explosives as well as several car bombs and reported them to U.S. and Iraqi army forces. It was the fifth such find for them in just a few weeks.
West of Baghdad, another group of volunteers discovered a large cache of artillery shells through a tip from a local resident.
In the East Rashid area of southeast Baghdad, Sunni volunteers establishing a neighborhood headquarters in a rented house last week found two artillery shells that could have been used to blow up U.S. and Iraqi security forces.
"The ISVs are doing a good and important job," said U.S. Army Capt. Alfred Boone, who is in charge of the ISV project in East Rashid.
"This is a temporary security solution that could lead to these groups going into the Iraqi army or the national police," Capt. Boone said.
The ISVs fall under the general, overall nomenclature of Concerned Local Citizens, a force distrusted in its present state by the Shi'ite-dominated government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which fears the predominately Sunni volunteers could become a military force outside the control of the government.
The Sunni opposition to al Qaeda began with the so-called "Awakening" movement by Sunni tribal leaders cooperating with U.S. forces in Anbar province west of Baghdad.
President Bush and Gen. David H. Petraeus, architect of the counterinsurgency strategy now being followed in Iraq, credit the movement with being a major factor in the drop in violence nationwide and in pushing al Qaeda out of its strongholds.
A cornerstone of the strategy, which includes the surge of U.S. forces into Baghdad, is securing neighborhoods from a return of terrorists once the terrorists are driven out.
That means boots on the ground in the communities, or in this case, shoes and sandals.
"The fact is concerned local citizens are helping provide security," Air Force Col. Donald Bacon, chief of strategy and plans and strategic communications for U.S.-led forces, told reporters recently.
"Without it, [al Qaeda in Iraq] would move back into these areas if we didn't have our forces there," Col. Bacon said.
In East Rashid, part of the larger Dora District of Baghdad, more than 200 men turned up recently at St. Peter's Chaldean Catholic Seminary on the first day of recruiting for just 135 ISV slots.
One by one, they were called forward, presented with identity documents and questioned by Iraqi interpreters who registered their information. They were then fingerprinted by a team of Americans, who also photographed them and took biometric information, such as retina scans, for entry into a new database and for cross-referencing.
"I don't have a job," said Hazem Abdullah Ali, a middle-aged recruit. "I need the job. And I want to help bring peace."
Volunteers for the U.S.-Iraqi funded program are paid $10 a day and use their own weapons. Under Iraqi law, each household is allowed to possess one AK-47 rifle.