East Rashid, Baghdad — A young man wearing a tan shirt emblazoned with the Iraqi flag and with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder approaches the doorway of Saint John’s Church, peeks inside, and motions to the American G.I. sergeant standing next to me. They step outside and I watch as the Iraqi makes a sign of the cross, points to the building, and then points to the American’s M-4 rifle, and waves his hand. After a few seconds, the sergeant gets it: no weapons inside the church. The sergeant leaves his weapon with another soldier as he reenters.
Saint John’s — one of about two dozen Chaldean Catholic parish churches in Baghdad — is located in East Rashid, a Sunni neighborhood described by both Iraqi and American officers as “former al-Qaeda headquarters.” Church leaders manage a small but growing congregation of Iraqi Catholics, many of whom were able to attend their first Mass in years this past Christmas. The pews that day were also full of local Sunnis supporting their Christian neighbors, as well as invited Americans.
The story of Saint John’s is significant, and for the residents in this part of Al Doura it’s a return to normalcy. Chaldean Catholics have lived in this neighborhood for centuries, part of Baghdad’s complex tapestry. However the need to defend
the church is a recent development — and in a way, an encouraging one. I was intrigued by the dozens of armed men in tan shirts standing in the streets near the church, as well as the hundreds I’ve seen in Baghdad so far. Who are these Sons of Iraq?
I step outside to find out more about the man in the tan shirt who persuaded the sergeant to disarm himself. He is a Sunni member of the Al Doura market area’s “Sons of Iraq” (formerly known as Concerned Local Citizens), the local security militia paid $10 per day to maintain order and to collect intelligence in their neighborhoods. Asked why he took it upon himself to enforce church rules (on a U.S. Army sergeant, no less!), he told me, “I respect the Christians here, they are my brothers.”
Prior to my trip, I was worried the Sons of Iraq would consist only of former Sunni insurgents, recklessly roaming their neighborhoods — armed, but without uniforms — on the dime of U.S. taxpayers. I was off target — as most pundits have been — and leave Iraq convinced that the “Sons” must play a key role in securing Iraq’s future. Some 91,000 have been stationed on Iraqi streets since the Anbar Awakening occurred in the fall of 2006, constituting a grassroots Iraqi surge of equal importance to our own.
Admittedly, I only observed the Sons (I’m told there are “Daughters of Iraq” as well) in southeast Baghdad, but after speaking candidly with senior American officials, I have little reason to believe that their composition and motives vary drastically elsewhere. Most importantly, the variance that does exist is a reflection of Iraq’s diverse population. All Sons of Iraq and their leadership are required to be residents of the neighborhoods they protect and are not allowed to enforce law outside their assigned area or to conduct offensive operations.
Over 11,000 Sons of Iraq (two thirds of them Sunni, one-third Shia) operate in southern Baghdad alone, and I watched them man checkpoints and interact with local residents. Every prospective Son of Iraq is fingerprinted and receives a retinal scan, after which they are screened through national and local security databases — both American and Iraqi. This process ensures that, while their ranks may include some former insurgents, the Sons are purged of hard-core fighters, foreign fighters, and insurgent leaders.
One Son of Iraq told me, “A few of my friends joined al-Qaeda, and now they are dead or captured. I never did, and this gives me a chance to keep al-Qaeda from coming back.”