BAGHDAD — As Arabic pop songs blared from a cafe and children squealed on rickety rides, men armed with pistols and Kalashnikovs wandered through a crowded Baghdad park one recent evening, checking visitors for weapons and keeping an eye out for suicide bombers.
Eight months ago, some of them may have been planting bombs themselves, or firing rounds at passing American convoys. But on this night, they grabbed hands and stomped their feet in a traditional line dance as a U.S. foot patrol stopped to watch.
Residents credit cooperation between the American soldiers and the dancing gunmen, members of a U.S.-funded Sunni neighborhood guard force, for a turnaround in security in Adhamiya, a Sunni Arab enclave in Shiite-dominated east Baghdad that until recently was on the front line of the Iraqi capital's sectarian war.
But doing business with the gunmen, whom the U.S. military has dubbed Sons of Iraq, is like striking a deal with Tony Soprano, according to the soldiers who walk the battle-blighted streets, where sewage collects in malodorous pools.
"Most of them kind of operate like dons in their areas," said 2nd Lt. Forrest Pierce, a platoon leader with the 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment. They shake down local businessmen for protection money, seize rivals for links to the insurgency and are always angling for more men, more territory and more power.
For U.S. soldiers on the beat, it means navigating a complex world of shifting allegiances, half-truths and betrayals.
Last month, a checkpoint leader known by the traditional nickname Abu Muthana was detained for allegedly arranging gangland-style hits and passing information to Al Qaeda in Iraq, a mostly homegrown militant group that the U.S. says is foreign-led.
"We have dirt on all of them," Pierce said. But Abu Muthana's arrest "kind of put the others on edge, let them know they aren't invincible, and made them clean up a bit."
As Pierce led his soldiers out of the park, the platoon received word over a crackling radio that two suspects had been detained at Sons of Iraq checkpoints.
The soldiers piled into their Humvees and maneuvered the lumbering vehicles down narrow, winding streets to an office fronting the illuminated Abu Hanifa Mosque, the most revered Sunni house of worship in Baghdad. Inside, a man sat in an overstuffed chair, his T-shirt pulled up over his face and his hands cuffed behind his back. Red and green disco lights played across the ceiling.
The checkpoint leader, who goes by the name Abu Omar, arrived with his 7-year-old son, who gripped a Kalashnikov only slightly shorter than himself.
Pierce asked what the captive was accused of doing. Abu Omar said he was one of Abu Muthana's men and had been spotted planting a roadside bomb. But there were no sworn statements to back up the charge. Without evidence that could stand up in court, Pierce couldn't take the man in.
"We keep telling them, they can't just be grabbing guys," he said, shaking his head as he left the building.
The next stop was a sprawling house that serves as headquarters for Mohannad, a young leader with slicked-back hair and flashy rings responsible for one of the largest sectors of Adhamiya.
A cuffed captive was brought into the living room with cotton wool and a blindfold over his eyes. Mohannad, who did not want his full name published, said he saw the man gun down two others near the mosque. Asked when this happened, he replied: February 2005.
Pierce exchanged a suspicious look with his platoon sergeant.
"So why are you detaining him now?" he asked.
Mohannad appeared surprised at the question. "He came through one of my checkpoints, so we grabbed him," he said.
As Mohannad filled in a statement, Pierce explained that he had another reason for visiting him that night.
"Rumor is that his guys are extorting money at gunpoint from the sewage contractor," he said. "But I want him to finish with the witness statements before we discuss that touchy subject."
Before he could do that, a report of an explosion came in over the radio, and the platoon was off again.
Such attacks were once a near-daily occurrence in Adhamiya. When the 3rd Squadron arrived last summer, its soldiers couldn't drive past Abu Hanifa Mosque without getting shot at. On the day they assumed responsibility for the area, the unit they replaced was struck by a roadside bomb that flipped a Bradley fighting vehicle, killing five soldiers and an interpreter.
But the number of attacks plunged to less than one a week after the military began paying local men $300 a month to protect their areas.
The U.S. military now has 843 gunmen on its payroll in Adhamiya, a once-prosperous neighborhood of retired military officers, teachers and professionals enclosed by a 12-foot-high concrete wall.
Last month, the number of attacks started to inch back up, leading soldiers to believe that religious extremists and the criminal gangs that thrive on chaos may be trying to stage a comeback. Under the cover of a blinding sandstorm, gunmen attacked a Sons of Iraq checkpoint and killed three of the guards. Bombs also have gone off in front of the homes of other group members.
The blast that Pierce was sent to investigate also took place at a checkpoint leader's home. The damage was minimal, and the soldiers concluded it was probably caused by a Molotov cocktail.
The homeowner did not appear concerned. Asked who he thought was responsible, the man shrugged.
"I don't know," he said. "It must be Al Qaeda."
Perhaps, Pierce said as he trudged back to the vehicles. "They always say it's AQI. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it's just another don wanting more turf."