By Richard Galpin
BBC News, Baghdad
The US military has recruited some 20,000 civilian volunteers to act as police in some of Iraq's most sensitive areas, a senior general has said.
Iraq's national police force is predominantly Shia
Gen Raymond Odierno, the commander of day-to-day military operations in Iraq, told the BBC that three-quarters of the volunteer forces were Sunni Muslims.
Critics say the scheme could lead to the creation of Sunni militias and inflame tensions with majority Shias.
The US admits this is a risky strategy but says benefits outweigh the risks.
It says the surge of American troops which began in February has brought greater security to Baghdad and the central regions of Iraq.
As a result, members of the Sunni community have for the first time started coming forward, offering to protect their own neighbourhoods from insurgents.
Gen Odierno says 10,000 have already been signed up in the Baghdad region alone.
"In many places they're standing up where there aren't any Iraqi security forces at all," he said.
Gen Odiermo adds that the volunteers would become a police "to protect and patrol their local communities" allowing US troops to reduce their presence over time.
At the moment the guards are not even armed. All they have are binoculars, radios and mobile phones.
But if they are integrated into the mainstream Iraqi security forces they will then receive weapons.
Gen Odierno wants this new scheme expanded across the country.
"We have people now down south and some areas... that now want a look at this programme, and what we want to do is expand it both to Sunni and Shias," he said.
"It's been about 80% Sunni and 20% Shia and we want to make it more balanced because there are plenty of areas where we need Shia recruits to do this."
No police on streets
But the fact the Americans see this as an important step forward in stabilising the country says much about the failure to establish a regular and reliable national police force.
In the area of Baghdad I visited with Gen Odierno, there were no Iraqi policemen on the streets.
The national police force is predominantly Shia and the neighbourhood we were in was Sunni.
So now volunteers have stepped forward here, all of them Sunni Muslims.
There has already been a demonstration by Shias living nearby who are concerned that the volunteers could be insurgents and will attack them.
Iraqi security officials are also worried, saying they do not even know the names or addresses of the volunteers, let alone their backgrounds.