Hundreds of young Iraqi men stood on the street in their underwear outside a Baghdad army base.
The recruiting drive, overseen by the US military, was held for the first time in the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah. The idea: balance the mostly Shiite makeup of the Iraqi Army, particularly in this area. It was also seen as a way to address the charges that Sunnis are being mistreated by Iraqi security forces.
But only 20 Adhamiyah Sunni natives showed up, of whom only 10 were accepted. The remainder of the 156 who enlisted were mostly Shiites from the impoverished districts of Sadr City and Shaab. They had been tipped off about the recruiting drive by relatives and friends in the Iraqi Army's 1st Battalion of the 6th Brigade, which is based in Adhamiyah but is about 80 percent Shiite.
Sunday's event underscores the challenges faced by US military trainers in attracting Sunnis to the security forces and keeping sectarianism out of one of the country's most critical institutions.
The effort to recruit Sunnis started at the crack of dawn with prospective soldiers made to line up in the base's outer perimeter and told to strip down to their underwear – a security measure. Suicide bombers have struck before in the midst of police and Army recruiting drives.Karlo, a US Army German shepherd dog, is on hand to sniff out any potential trouble.
The young men carrying their clothes in bundles are let into the base in groups of five.
First in line are the Marsumi cousins. The two former policemen were chased out of their village of Hibhib in Diyala Province north of Baghdad last year by Sunni extremists, they say, because they were Shiites. Five of their comrades were slain, a bomb was placed at their front door, and they lost four family members. They now live with relatives in a Shiite enclave in Baghdad.
They say that they were told by their contacts at the Adhamiyah base to be discreet about their sectarian affiliations, otherwise they'd be turned away by the Americans, who wanted mainly Sunnis from Adhamiyah.
Col. Carl Johnson and two other US military officers from the team that is training and equipping Iraq's armed forces are on hand to observe. Their Iraqi counterpart, Brig. Gen. Raad Kadhem, is also present.
The Adhamiyah municipal council had promised 1,400 eager recruits. US and Iraqi officials say they are ready to sign up 200 recruits on the spot, the only requirements being that they be between the ages of 18 and 29, weigh less than 330 pounds, be literate, have 22 teeth, and not have any vision or hearing impairments.
The local council members had complained to Colonel Johnson that it was too dangerous for them as Sunnis to venture out to the main recruiting center at the Al-Muthana airport. So he decided to come to them.
"The intent is to show them that they will be treated fairly," Johnson says.
Adhamiyah is a traditional stronghold for Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party. Soldiers from the US Army's 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, who were sent in August to pacify the area, continue to face fierce resistance and hostility. The unit has already lost 17 soldiers.
The center of Adhamiyah resembles a battleground with "Long live the martyr Saddam" graffiti everywhere.
Even the local council's head, Mudhafar Abdul Razaq, who had pushed the most for Sunnis to be enlisted in the Army and police, was murdered last month. He was the second council official to be killed in three months.
"It was disheartening. It's a setback," says Capt. Nathaniel Waggoner of the1-26. He still hopes, though, that some Sunnis will show up.
As the morning chill gives way, the line of recruits grows. Ten men in their 20s, all from Sadr City, stand in line to be fingerprinted and have their biometrics taken by US soldiers.
Hussein Qassim says that he heard that conscription in Adhamiyah was free so he came over. He and three friends had paid $1,200 in bribes last month at the Muthana center for slots in the Army but got nothing. Several prospective and current Iraqi soldiers confirm that the standard bribe for conscription is indeed $300. Only those hired when the US military is present seem to be exempt.
$360 is a big salary
The starting monthly salary for soldiers is $360, a relative fortune for the jobless youth.
At mid-morning, a teenager begins to sob hysterically. He was just turned away because he did not have his original ID. He begs an Iraqi officer to let him in. He must work to feed his ailing father and two little brothers, he says. His mother died in a car bomb earlier this year after the family was expelled from a town south of Baghdad just because they were Shiites.
Another man is told that he is too old for the Army. "Please, I will do anything. I will sell my blood just to feed my children," pleads Musleh Mutashar, a Shiite from the Bayaa neighborhood.
Lieutenant Waggoner, a native of Fort Worth, Texas, discovers there are 20 people from Adhamiyah among the crowd. He separates them and has them escorted to the clinic for the medical checkup and literacy test. "We are jobless and we also want to protect our neighborhoods," says Osama al-Dawoodi, who came with his brother.
After a long wait, only eight pass the medical and literary test, which consists of reading newspaper headlines. A total of 12 Sunnis are turned away, including two because of a lisp. Mr. Dawoodi, who was accepted, becomes angry and says he will not board the bus to the Numaniyah training center southeast of Baghdad without his friends.
"Well, if that's how you're going to be, do not go all of you. You should be grateful that we came to you," Iraqi General Kadhem responds. The Americans intervene and the two lisping Sunnis are allowed on the bus. An enlisted Iraqi soldier standing nearby disagrees with recruiting Sunnis from Adhamiyah. "The people of Adhamiyah are not to be trusted. They will work in our midst as informants for the insurgents," he says.
2,500 Sunni recruits in Ramadi
General Kadhem says they will keep trying, but they will only succeed in hiring Sunnis when the people in the community decide to throw their lot behind the government. He notes the Iraqi Army's success in Ramadi last month. It recruited 2,500 Sunnis, thanks to the Anbar Salvation Front, a group of US-backed tribal sheikhs who are fighting Al Qaeda in the province. He says that 1,500 Anbar Sunnis are now in basic training, while the remainder of the recruits are waiting for training. The general says that currently, about 65 percent of the Iraqi Army are Shiites.