Anna Badkhen / San Francisco Chronicle – 2006-05-27 08:59:18
BAHGDAD (May 27, 2006) — On a moonless, hazy night, a willowy shadow of a man holding an AK-47 lurked in an empty east Baghdad alley behind a row of rusted, empty market stalls. As an American convoy approached, the man disappeared into the dark. The US armored humvees rattled past the alley.
Who was he, and what was he doing out in the street after the midnight curfew?
The soldiers of the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division who saw him said he was probably a member of one of the many vigilante teams that have sprung up in this heavily Shiite region of Baghdad and all across Iraq’s capital. Not trusting US or Iraqi forces to defend them, neighborhoods are setting up their own militias and checkpoints.
“It’s a way of people saying: ‘Not in my street,’ ” said Capt. Brandon Iker of the 10th Mountain Division, whose 1-87 infantry battalion of the 1st brigade patrols Ghazaliya, a predominantly Sunni neighborhood in northwestern Baghdad.
In mostly Shiite eastern Baghdad, gunmen stand behind the iron gates of mosques to foil strikes against Shiite shrines. In the predominantly Sunni western Baghdad, armed guards take up positions behind sandbagged sniper nests to prevent retaliatory attacks on their mosques. Throughout the capital, residents barricade their streets with palm tree trunks, rubble, coils of razor wire and burned-out cars, hoping to thwart death squads that pluck civilians from their homes to torture and kill them. After dark, ordinary civilians armed with assault rifles take turns manning the barricades.
“We put up some barriers so that people can guard the streets at night,” said Falah Hussein, a Shiite member of the Ghazaliya neighborhood council, who said he has organized several neighborhood vigilante teams in the area in northwestern Baghdad.
But the man behind the cordon of market stalls also could have been one of the thousands of plainclothes security forces with questionable loyalties. Or he could have been one of the militia gunmen, loyal to one religious faction or another, who prowl the streets of Baghdad — some with government backing, others with the blessing of religious leaders like the militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, or Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, whose Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq is one of the main Shiite parties that controls the government.
Or he could have been an insurgent plotting an attack on American or Iraqi forces.
US military officers acknowledge that Baghdadis have a legitimate reason to want to protect their streets and mosques. But they also worry that such self-styled neighborhood guards are adding to the number of plainclothes gunmen fighting for control over parts of the city — and that most of the time it is nearly impossible to tell the good guys from the bad.
“The last thing we need … is another militia,” said Capt. Jeremy Gwinn, a 1-87 company commander.
“If we see a man with a Kalashnikov in his car, and he doesn’t have a uniform, we have no way of knowing whether he is an insurgent or a member of a friendly neighborhood militia,” Gwinn said. “I want people to be able to defend themselves, but I can’t allow them to walk around with AK-47s.”
US forces allow Iraqi civilians to keep one Kalashnikov assault rifle inside the house but not to carry weapons in the street. Iraqi members of vigilante teams say they are finding ways around this rule.
“I told them: ‘If you see Americans, just hide your AKs under the barricades,’ ” said Hussein of the Ghazaliya neighborhood council.
The fact that insurgents use quiet neighborhoods and mosques to plot their operations and store ammunition makes it even harder to tell between the neighborhood watch and the elusive insurgents.
Last week, for example, a joint US and Iraqi army raid at the blue-domed Abbas Mosque in the Sunni neighborhood of Amariya in western Baghdad discovered prefabricated roadside bombs fashioned from 120mm mortar rounds, plus cell phones and radios to detonate the bombs remotely. They also found seven black balaclavas, a homemade rocket-propelled grenade launcher, assault and sniper rifles, handcuffs, 1.5-quart plastic soda bottles filled with bullets and an anti-tank mine in a dark-blue Kia minivan parked outside.
In a fruit tree grove inside the mosque yard, Iraqi soldiers unearthed bathtubs filled with munitions, including several 155mm rounds.
The mosque’s leaders said they had not known about the cache, which obviously was not intended for self-defense. But religious leaders insisted that the six Kalashnikov rifles and a Russian-made machine gun that US and Iraqi forces had confiscated from the Ali Abab Mosque’s guard shack in neighboring Ghazaliya the week before were intended for use by the mosque’s security guards.
“We have to have weapons for the mosque,” Sheikh Hassan Rawi told Gwinn at a Ghazaliya neighborhood security meeting last week. “You yourselves tell us to protect ourselves.”
“You don’t need an RPK (machine gun) for protection,” Gwinn retorted.
While the barricades that crisscross Baghdad appear to be somewhat effective against drive-by shootings and kidnappings, they also impede the ability of US troops, Iraqi security forces and firefighters to drive into the streets, said Maj. James Lowe, whose 506 regimental combat team of the 101st Airborne Division patrols eastern Baghdad.
“It’s one of the things we are working with religious leaders to minimize,” he said.
Not every Baghdad street has vigilante teams. A high school English teacher, whose two-story house sits kitty-corner across a square from the Sunni al-Hasanien Mosque in Amariya, said no one patrols his neighborhood at night. “We have a machine gun,” he said, referring to his Kalashnikov. “And we have God. That’s it.”
Down the alley from the teacher’s house, a sign spray-painted in black on a concrete barricade read, in English:
“Give us a chance to protect our selfs.”
E-mail Anna Badkhen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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