Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Good News from Iraq: 9 Oct 2007

From MNF-I, Sha’ab residents stand up for security.

BAGHDAD — Inside a stuffy conference room in a makeshift recruiting station, a dozen men from eastern Baghdad’s Sha’ab neighborhood stood with their right hands raised.

The men were all different sizes and shapes, some in their teens, some with gray hair, some in oxford shirts and dress shoes, others in sports jerseys and flip-flops.

In front of each man was a piece of paper with a statement of loyalty to the Iraqi government. Haltingly at first and then louder as their voices joined together, the men recited the words on the paper, pledging to serve the government and obey the law.

With that, the men officially went from being average citizens to protectors of their community.

Over the past week, nearly 600 men applied to join Sha’ab’s new volunteer security force, a government-authorized, U.S.-funded community police force that will guard important local infrastructure sites such as offices, schools, and markets. The total force will eventually number more than 1,200.

“These guys are going to work in partnership with the Iraqi police and the Iraqi national police to secure their own neighborhoods and streets and markets,” said Army Capt. Dennis Marshall, commander of Headquarters Company, 2nd “White Falcons” Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division.

The White Falcons have supported the creation of the new force with funding and assistance with screening applicants.

While Sha’ab’s volunteer security force program comes in the wake of several other well-publicized community police programs in other parts of Baghdad, Marshall said this program has been in development for some time.

“This is something the sheiks have been asking for since I first got here,” Marshall said. “It’s about local solutions to local problems.”

The appeal of the program is that it gives area residents a greater role and more control in securing their own neighborhoods, while also providing much-needed jobs, said Hamood Hassem, a political figure known as the mayor of Adhamiyah, and one of the key organizers of the program.

“We want to give people a chance to work and we want to protect our area,” Hassem said.

Hassem played a central role in creating the program, working with local sheiks, elders, Imams (Muslim clerics), and community leaders to build support for the idea and select the members of the new force.

Each applicant must be “sponsored,” or vouched for, by a local leader — one way to ensure that militia members, criminals and terrorists cannot infiltrate the ranks of sincere citizens who want to serve, Hassem said.

The depth of support the program has generated was evident during a recent screening for recruits that took place at Hassem’s office in Sha’ab. By 9 a.m., hundreds of men had lined up for the chance to join.

Inside the building, paratroopers had a series of stations set up, where the applicants filled out paperwork, had fingerprints and retina scans taken, and were given medical checkups. Upon reciting the oath of loyalty, the volunteers were ready to provide security for their fellow countrymen.