QARGHULIA, IRAQ — Despite persistent sectarian tensions in the Iraqi government, war-weary Sunnis and Shiites are joining hands at the local level to protect their communities from militants on both sides, U.S. military officials say.
In the last two months, a U.S.-backed policing movement called Concerned Citizens, launched last year in Sunni-dominated Anbar province under the banner of the Awakening movement, has spread rapidly into the mixed Iraqi heartland.
Of the nearly 70,000 Iraqi men in the Awakening movement, started by Sunni Muslim sheiks who turned their followers against Al Qaeda in Iraq, there are now more in Baghdad and its environs than anywhere else, and a growing number of those are Shiite Muslims.
Commanders in the field think they have tapped into a genuine public expression of reconciliation that has outpaced the elected government's progress on mending the sectarian rift.
"What you find is these people have lived together for decades with no problem until the terrorists arrived and tried to instigate the problem," said Lt. Col. Valery Keaveny, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 509th Airborne unit in the Iskandariya area south of Baghdad. "So they are perfectly willing to work together to keep the terrorists out."
As late as this summer, there were no Shiites in the community policing groups. Today, there are about 15,000 in 24 all-Shiite groups and 18 mixed groups, senior U.S. military officials say. More are joining daily.
Here in Qarghulia, a rural community east of Baghdad, the results are palpable. Killings are down dramatically and public confidence is reviving.
"Sunnis-Shiites, no problem," said Obede Ali Hussein, 22, who stood at a checkpoint built by the U.S. Army along the Diyala River. "We want to protect our neighborhood."
For commanders in areas where Sunni-Shiite warring had brought normal life to a standstill, the unexpected flowering of sectarian cooperation has proved a boon.
"I couldn't do it without them," said Capt. Troy Thomas, whose 1st Cavalry unit is responsible for securing the Qarghulia area.
Thomas said 42 of the 49 traffic checkpoints in his area are manned by local groups, including Sunnis and Shiites. He said they both extend his reach and perform with a sensitivity that no U.S. soldier could match.
"They grew up in the area," Thomas said. "They know who should be there and who shouldn't."
At his checkpoint, Ali Hussein eyed a steady stream of cars, farm trucks and motor scooters weaving down the rural Diyala River road toward the main north-south highway.
"Nobody could drive through the street six weeks ago," he said. "The street was empty."
Before this year's troop buildup, U.S. soldiers seldom ventured into Qarghulia. The area was patrolled by two Baghdad-based companies, or about 160 men, said Col. Wayne Grigsby, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division's 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team. National police had little presence there, either, and when they did show up, were mistrusted by the populace.
In this lawless climate, Al Qaeda in Iraq held sway in the chronically violent Sunni city of Salman Pak, while Shiite militias enforced mafioso-style protection in Qarghulia.
In early May, Thomas set up a 90-strong outpost dubbed Patrol Base Assassin in Qarghulia's Four Corners area, a crossroads where the rural population shops in rows of concrete strip malls.
When he arrived, about half the shops were shuttered, and those still doing business were paying protection money to the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia, Thomas said.
To restore security in the 150-square-mile area, Thomas sought help. National police units would augment his patrols with checkpoints on the busy highway, but he remained exposed along the rural roads to the east and west.
He didn't hesitate when the local sheiks, who had heard of the spreading Concerned Citizens movement, approached him.
The first group, formed in September, now maintains about a dozen checkpoints along the Diyala River on the area's western edge and patrols back roads. The sheiks, both Sunni and Shiite, selected a Sunni farmer, Abu Ammash, to be the group's leader and filled its ranks with their followers, who came from both sects.
Over a recent two-day period, Thomas, a Minnesota-bred martial arts specialist, spent a considerable amount of time in the company of sheiks, who were starting a second Concerned Citizens group to protect his eastern flank.
The new group will be headed by Hamed Gitan Khalaf, a Shiite and former sergeant major in the Iraqi army.
Gitan said sect plays no part in his command, which will be split almost evenly between Sunni and Shiite.
"All of us are hand in hand," he said.