US Army officials in the eastern part of the Iraqi capital are taking a novel approach to stop looters - offering some of them a job that pays better than stealing government property.
In the three days since the experiment began, the number of looters in a massive multiacre warehouse and industrial stockyard run by the Iraqi power company has dropped from several hundred to zero.
The complex has been a kind of looter's paradise, with large stocks of copper wiring, steel construction materials, and other equipment and supplies that could quickly and easily be sold for cash on the black market.
"The agreement I have with them is that if they are caught looting, they have to pay me back all the money I've paid to them," says US Army Capt. Wil Neubauer.
When US Army units arrived three weeks ago to take over patrols in east Baghdad from the Marines, the picture was anything but rosy. "The first day we got here, there were more than 1,000 people in the Electric Company yard. There were buildings burning, and gunfire everywhere," says Sgt. Maj. Phillip Pandy of Miami, Fla.
"Three weeks later, and some of the same people are cleaning the place up, bringing equipment back, and guarding it," he says. "They are working with us, hand in hand."
The experience of the 2nd Squadron of the US Army's 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment is important because it may demonstrate a way to break what seems to be a perpetual cycle of theft and looting of any property that Iraqis associate with the deposed regime of Saddam Hussein.
By reaching out to local Iraqis, 2nd Squadron officials say they are helping to build a level of trust and friendship. In addition, they are creating an incentive for Iraqis themselves to begin protecting what remains of Iraq's crucial infrastructure.
US reconstruction experts say that substantial rebuilding in Iraq cannot be undertaken until a majority of Iraqis understand and accept that the country no longer belongs to Mr. Hussein. It will be up to the Iraqi people to either destroy it or help rebuild it.
Second Squadron officials have been attempting to protect the Electric Company yard in part because it is adjacent to a government-run cigarette factory that now houses the squadron's headquarters. Widespread lawlessness next door could threaten the safety of US forces. "I'm glad I don't have to commit combat forces to take care of our backyard anymore," says Lt. Col. Joel Armstrong, the squadron commander, referring to the nearby warehouses and stockyards.
He stresses that all Iraqi workers hired by the squadron are closely supervised by US forces. "We are trusting these people we don't know very well, but we have mitigated the risks and it is our best option."
Captain Neubauer initiated the experiment after he had waged a largely ineffective effort to physically plug all the holes in the fences and walls surrounding the Electric Company yard. The looters returned each day with wire cutters and tools to break through the walls and cut new entrances into the fences.
The only thing that really frightened the looters, he says, was when he sent a Bradley fighting vehicle out. They would scatter and disappear for a while, he says, but then come back. "They tested us, and they knew we won't shoot them or run in there and beat them up because that's not our way," Neubauer says.
The last straw, he says, was when the looters started throwing rocks. Rather than responding with force, Neubauer decided to try a different approach. He says his plan is consistent with the goals set by Squadron Commander Armstrong: to stop the looting, keep US forces secure, and build a working relationship with the people of Iraq.
Every day, he hires 10 different individuals from the same three villages where most, if not all, of the recent looters live. They work as laborers in the yard helping to clean up and reorganize the power supplies. They're paid from $3 to $5 a day.
In addition, six local Iraqis have been hired to conduct joint patrols with US soldiers along the perimeter of the electrical yard. The Iraqis are issued an identification badge and a T-shirt to help American soldiers quickly identify them. The Iraqi security employees function in teams of two and always patrol with two US soldiers. They are given one AK-47, with 10 live rounds.
Candidates for the patrols are closely screened to ensure they are reliable and trustworthy. "We don't want just anybody out there guarding our backs, especially when you are giving them an AK-47," Neubauer says.
But he says the arrangement is establishing a good relationship with the squadron's neighbors. "If you are going to get people to trust you," he says, "you have to show that you trust them."