In Baghdad, a Precarious Balance Between Sunni and Shiite Forces—With Americans in the Middle

Iraqi units man checkpoints once staffed by Americans.

FE_DA_080220iraq.jpg

Lt. Logan Dick mediates a dispute between Iraqi Army soldiers and a "concerned local citizens" organization.

By + More

BAGHDAD—In retrospect, Ahmed Khltahn agreed, leaping unannounced out of the taxi at the Ghazaliya checkpoint and loudly ratcheting back the loading mechanism of his AK-47 assault rifle was not a good idea. He was, after all, only going to pick up some takeout food. And the Iraqi Army guards working the checkpoint later conceded that they could have avoided firing bursts of their AK-47s into the ground to warn Ahmed off. But they did shoot their guns and they did punch Ahmed's face and kick him, too. And if the dismounted American patrol hadn't been visiting with the local merchants nearby and jogged over to the checkpoint, there's no telling how things could have gone differently.

A year ago, Ahmed Khltahn could easily have been one of the many faceless Sunni insurgents who popped out from muddy allies to take potshots at American patrols or lob grenades into the gun turrets of their humvees. But he's now gainfully employed as a checkpoint guard himself, albeit one on a different street than the site of that day's altercation. As a member of the Ghazaliya Guardians, he collects a paycheck from U.S. forces, he can carry a weapon (though it's supposed to stay at his post), and he is allowed to wear a paramilitary-style uniform with a "GG" patch stuck on his left shoulder.

Turning unemployed local Sunni men into employed ersatz peacekeepers is what officials and residents credit with turning around this once posh neighborhood in the Iraqi capital. Attacks against American forces, including IED strikes and small-arms fire, have plunged; residents are slowly trickling back into their houses; and some businesses are cautiously reopening their doors. What was once a largely Sunni neighborhood has seen an influx of Shiite residents, with the aid of the Shiite Mahdi Army militia, much to the consternation of the longtime Sunni residents. And problems remain. Sewage flows openly in the streets, and many residents have only an hour or two of power each day. Shiites, it seems, manage to get a bit more than their Sunni residents, given that Shiites in the government run the power stations.

Col. Ali Raad is keen on talking about his new job as commander of the local GG unit. He's less keen on talking about his résumé between the time he left as an instructor at an Iraqi Army Special Forces academy in 2003 and the time he was captured by American forces and tossed in Abu Ghraib prison several months after the invasion. He smiles coyly and says he was driving a taxi and was picked up for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. At any rate, he spent eight months in the prison where he says that he learned the value of forgiveness, including forgiving the American troops who invaded his country.

Now, he walks around the joint command center of Joint Security Station Casino in Ghazaliya, carrying himself with the bearing of a senior military man. "I walked into this base a few months ago and said that we'd had enough," he says. That's when the GG began. "Who knows better about keeping out al Qaeda or the Mahdi Army than the people who live in the neighborhood?" Local Sunnis can't trust the Shiite government, and not just because they are slighted on services. "We did once, but some soldiers from the Iraqi Army came to the neighborhoods and kidnapped some people who were later found dead in a trash heap," Raad says.

In a matter of weeks after the GG started manning checkpoints, American forces began getting tips on local al Qaeda fighters and leaders of the Mahdi Army, and soon they armed the checkpoints. But there's still not much love between the Iraqi Army, now mainly Shiite, and the GGs, to which Ahmed Khltahn can attest. A few weeks ago, a busload of GGs stopped at a checkpoint manned by Iraqi Army and police. Someone placed a magnetic bomb under their bus, and four GGs were killed. "It's about getting beyond that stuff and getting them to trust each other any way they can," says Lt. Logan Dick, whose patrol helped calm the situation at the checkpoint. "The different groups are supposed to check and balance each other."