The violence has dropped dramatically, say US commanders, in the towns surrounding this base in northern Babil Province, south of Baghdad.
In May, four improvised explosive device (IED) attacks targeted the battalion; none in August, says Maj. Craig Whiteside, executive officer of the 1st Battalion of the 501st Infantry Regiment. Fewer undetonated IEDs have been found – five in May and two in August. Indirect fire and small-arms violence have also dropped from about a dozen incidents in May to less than three in August.
The reason, they say, is that the same approach that won success in Anbar Province, where the Marines gained support of Sunni tribesmen against Al Qaeda, is taking hold in mixed-sectarian areas. But here, Americans have enlisted Shiites frustrated with extremists from such groups as the Mahdi Army, run by Moqtada al-Sadr.
Across the Euphrates River Valley, known to the military as the southern belts of Baghdad, about 14,000 Shiite and Sunni "concerned citizens" are being paid to man checkpoints and patrol roads in an effort to prevent attacks from violent extremism of either sect.
Largely untrained and armed with weapons they already own, the citizens wear armbands and monitor traffic along the roads, keeping watch to ensure no outsiders or other extremist elements come through to bury roadside bombs. If they fail to keep violence out, they could lose their monthly paycheck. Ultimately, the idea is that they will become members of the Iraq security forces.
"They are making their community safe," says Army Capt. Charles Levine, one of the company commanders here. His battalion has recruited more than 1,300 participants since mid-September. A little less than half of them are Shiite.
The program offers Iraqis 90-day contracts. If it continues to be successful, it could counter false perceptions that the US is arming Sunnis against the Shiite government, as it attempts to install security among all tribes, not just those in Sunni areas.
There is a cautionary element to the effort: It is still unclear what exactly motivates the individuals, beyond the money they receive. But regardless, the American military credits the program for a dramatic drop in violence against US forces and a decrease in other violence, says Major Whiteside.
The drop here follows a decline in violence throughout Iraq, which the US military says is a sign the troop surge is having an impact. Deaths of both US troops and Iraqi civilians in September fell to their lowest levels in more than a year. The Pentagon says 58 US forces died last month, 33 from hostile fire. That was the lowest number since July 2006. Iraqi civilian deaths fell to 922 in September, from 1,975 in August, according to the Associated Press.
In these towns south of Baghdad, however, it's not clear how much the civilian programs have contributed to a lowering of the sectarian violence that is not targeting US forces.
Unlike in Baghdad, the sectarian violence here is "very local," and it can be difficult to attribute any one incident to tribal, sectarian, or criminal acts.
"It's pretty small scale and it's less than it used to be because [Al Qaeda in Iraq] is almost out of the picture and [the Mahdi Army] is still at it and keeps killing Sunnis here and there," says Whiteside.
For now, American troops marvel at the turnaround here, once one of the most dangerous areas in which more than 20 Americans were killed in this battalion.
"The more successful this is, the more the locals will embrace this thing and guard it more closely," says Army Lt. Col. Beau Balcavage, the stocky battalion commander.
At $500,000 per month, the program is far cheaper, he points out, than replacing a Humvee damaged by a roadside bomb – not to mention loss of life or limb.
At a recent recruitment drive, Americans traveled to a nearby school. When they arrived, more men showed up than were expected, and one, wide-eyed and hopeful, had to be turned away because he was too young.
Many military analysts did not believe the Anbar model, where Sunni sheikhs sided with the Americans, could be easily copied elsewhere – or within other sects.
During testimony in Washington in early September, Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top US general here, acknowledged that it's hard to copy that success. "While Anbar is unique and the model it provides cannot be replicated everywhere in Iraq, it does demonstrate the dramatic change in security that is possible with the support and participation of local citizens," he said.
Anbar model with a twist
The program in Babil Province is as much the same as the one in Anbar as it is different.
There, Sunnis largely motivated by self-preservation are signing up in droves, not only to protect themselves from extremists such as Al Qaeda in Iraq but also for the empowerment it provides to Sunni tribes who feel isolated from the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. Sunnis there are given a one-time $150 payment; a bag of food; and a T-shirt.
Under a different command, the military here pays a daily rate to both Sunni and Shiite. But among the Shiites, there is more concern about security than central government indifference. Many simply want the work: At $10 a day, it is an appealing jobs program in this agrarian area where date palms and pomegranate trees outnumber buildings.
But the program comes with inherent risk and also indicates that the US military can only do so much to sustain a secure environment before the government of Iraq must accept that responsibility for itself.
While the hope is that these individuals will be folded into the Iraq security forces, it's not clear if the political infighting that has crippled the government of Iraq will allow that to happen right away. And if the 90-day contracts expire, without renewal or without government sponsorship, and the citizens lose their jobs, the paid-for loyalty could also lapse.
Colonel Balcavage says that won't happen initially because he will renew the contracts if he has to. Ultimately, however, it will be up to the central government to step up, according to military officials in Baghdad.
"We think the [concerned citizens] are the best solution all across Iraq," says Sheikh Yusif Fadel, a Sunni who, like many, is distrustful of the government of Iraq and doubts it will pay for the program, because Sunnis make up so much of it.
American officials say they have early assurances that the Iraqi government will support the program. It's only a question of convincing it that it is a security program, not an attempt to create armed militias, officials in Baghdad say.
Captain Levine says he believes the program will work, but more important, it has allowed the Shiite to see the impact of their efforts, albeit with US help. "Even if the contract is not renewed, even if the transition to the [Iraqi police] is not successful, they have stepped up, given ownership of their community and they can be proud of it," he says. "They can say 'I can be part of the solution.' "