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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 November 2007, 12:15 GMT
Sunni militia brings calm to Baghdad area
By Jim Muir
BBC News, Baghdad

There is general recognition that the security situation in Baghdad and some other parts of Iraq has got significantly better in the past three months or so.

US soldier patrols market in the Dora area of Baghdad -
The US surge has brought calm to previously restive areas of Baghdad
In addition to the current surge of US forces, one of the major factors that is credited with helping the improvement, has been the emergence in Sunni areas, of local fighters recruited by the Americans as a kind of neighbourhood watch.

There are thought to be nearly 80,000 of them nationwide.

Many of them used to fight alongside the insurgents, but now, encouraged by their tribal leaders, they have turned against al-Qaeda and are helping keep it out of their areas.

We went to al-Ameriya, a journey we would not have dreamt of attempting just a few months ago, to see some of the local fighters in action.

This part of Baghdad used to be a stronghold of al-Qaeda or groups linked to it.

Knights of Mesopotamia

Now we are travelling, not with the American army as we might once have done, but with a tribal Sunni sheikh whose followers are now controlling the area along with the Americans, helping to drive al-Qaeda out and to keep it out.

Abdul Abed, Sunni militia leader
People saw al-Qaeda doing terrible things. They were killing Sunnis, Shias, and Christians. There were bodies everywhere, being eaten by dogs. So we had to fight them
Abdul Abed

We are under the protection of the Fursan al-Rafidain, the Knights of Mesopotamia, a force of about 600, and they clearly rule the roost in al-Ameriya.

They are paid and supplied with uniforms by the Americans, and work closely with them. Our first stop was at their headquarters.

Their leader, Abul Abed, meets the Americans every day.

On the wall is a picture of him with General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq.

But it was not always that way. Before turning against al-Qaeda, he used to be in an insurgent group which fought the Americans.

"At the beginning, people saw it as an occupation which had to be resisted. But then they saw that the Americans were working in the interests of the people.

"They saw al-Qaeda doing terrible things. They were killing Sunnis, Shias, and Christians. There were bodies everywhere, being eaten by dogs. So we had to fight them," Abul Abed said.

Transformation

On the main street of al-Ameriya, shops are open, people are walking around, they say that there has been a complete transformation in the area - not so long ago it was like a kind of ghost town, bodies piling up in the street, garbage everywhere, and basically al-Qaeda in control.

Bilal al-Rawi, a shopkeeper who was here throughout the troubles, says there has been a huge change from the deserted streets and closed market, and he hopes there will be no return to the dark days of just a few months ago.

Amal Ali, Shia woman who returned to al-Ameriya
It was really bad. There was killing and beating. We couldn't go out. We were afraid of snipers. There were bodies everywhere. But now, thank God, it's not like that
Amal Ali

We hear American helicopters buzzing overhead reminding everybody who is the real power behind all this, but the transformation on the ground is remarkable.

Further down the street, we bumped into some Iraqi Army forces with some American officers.

Maj William Kahmann of the Fifth Cavalry was doing a little light shopping - something he could not have done until recently.

"I could not walk up and down the street like I am today and go into a shop and actually purchase something," Maj Kahmann said.

"People were very hesitant to talk to us, because they knew that when we leave, al-Qaeda would come in behind us and probably talk to them and say, hey, why are you discussing anything with the Americans."

The major said that the role of the Sunni force, the Knights of Mesopotamia was critical.

"They knew better than anybody who was an outsider to al-Ameriya, especially al-Qaeda, and they were able to provide that intelligence so we could specifically target those individuals."

Return to al-Ameriya

About 60 Shia families have moved back into the mainly Sunni area.

Amal Ali fled al-Ameriya earlier this year with her six children, when masked men threatened to kill them.

"It was really bad. There was killing and beating. We couldn't go out. We were afraid of snipers. There were bodies everywhere. But now, thank God, it's not like that. Things are good again thanks to Abul Abed," she said.

But the leader of the Knights of Mesopotamia comes with a mixed reputation. He has even been compared to a Mafia don.

There are also fears that building up what are essentially Sunni militias, could be storing up problems for the future.

But for the moment, in al-Ameriya and elsewhere, it is working.

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