Keeping Track of Iraq's Gunmen

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Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty

Soldiers from the 6th Squadron, 8th Cavalry Regiment walk past a member of an anti-al-Qaeda group, known as Concerned Local Citizens (CLC), as they patrol an area in southern Baghdad, January 24, 2008.

Saha is a drab south Baghdad neighborhood of poured concrete apartment buildings that once housed Baghdad hospital workers. But, in this 20-block area, the visitor may see as many as five separate security forces operating at a single intersection at a time. Some stop cars; others frisk passers-by; and still others skulk along the shuttered storefronts. Each nervously eyes the other, fingers on the trigger. It is a scene replicated all over the city.

First, there are the American soldiers, a platoon, which in this case is about 30 men in four Stryker vehicles. Second, the concerned local citizens (CLCs), a neighborhood watch consisting of armed men — all in plainclothes, many overweight — appointed by Sheikh Ali, a Tony Soprano-type character the Americans have come to rely on to keep the peace. The CLCs have been key to America's new "surge" strategy in Iraq.

Third, the Iraqi police, as disheveled and ill-equipped a group as exists in the new Iraq, saunter up the street, many carrying their helmets in their hands. Fourth, the Iraqi police's Quick Reaction Force, well dressed and well equipped, sporting black uniforms, harnesses for extra ammunition, black helmets, black ski goggles and reflective sunglasses. They are the police's SWAT unit with many of their members in their early 20s and only on the job three months. Fifth, the National Police, a group feared and vilified in Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad.

The latter three groups are armed, organized and funded by the Shi'ite-dominated Ministry of Interior, while the CLCs have the backing of the Americans. Not present are the Kurdish Pesh Merga (numbering 1,200 in Baghdad), Shi'ite strongman Moqtada al-Sadr's Jaish al-Mahd (JAM to U.S. soldiers, the Mahdi Army to most others), al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Badr corps (the Shi'ite militia that rivals al-Sadr's) and the Iraqi Army. The list goes on.

With luck, some of these groups may consolidate or disappear. One day, for example the Americans may go home. The National Police may draw down, the Iraqi police step up and shape up, the quick reaction force remain at the station unless otherwise needed, and the CLCs integrate into the Iraqi army and police. But for students of history and armchair generals, the parallels with Beirut, circa 1975, may be striking: More sectarian-aligned groups are organized and armed and funded now than at any point in the war.

Because so many unofficial lines of authority have been drawn, some neighborhood residents say they feel like they are a country away from friends and neighbors on the other side of Baghdad. "I want to feel like I'm in one Iraq — with one army, one security force — not these different groups," says Sabeha Hassun, who owns a shop selling women's beauty and clothing supplies just up the street from an American military outpost where a double murder — of CLC members — happened in broad daylight last week.

Next door, Salmar Hussein complains that the CLCs are taking his business. At what first appears to be a travel agency — a desk, a few chairs and a giant mural of a fairy-tale pastoral scene — Hussein runs a real estate business, although he says he hasn't rented or sold a house in four or five years. "The main reason we don't have any business is that the people who come here don't care — they just break the gate and occupy the house. Some people arrange this." He is nervous, afraid to say anything more.

But the rambling and hyperbolic Lt. Col. Mohammad doesn't hold back. The chief of the Iraqi Police in Saha says that CLC members beat, arrested and killed a group of men last month. "We know that some of the CLC guys were criminals. But now we will include them in the Iraqi security forces." As much as he complains about the CLC, Mohammad reserves his biggest criticisms for the National Police (not to be confused with Saha's own Iraqi police), with their paramilitary ethos and long history of pulling Sunni families from their cars or homes and shooting them execution style. On the day TIME stopped by Mohammad's station he had just returned from defusing a standoff between his Iraqi policemen and a few dozen National Police.

The incident started while the Iraqi police were on their way to fill up their cars with gas. The National Police stopped them, accused the Iraqi police of not carrying proper IDs and tried to arrest them. Shots were fired, punches thrown, and an Iraqi policeman had his cell phone and a Glock clip confiscated. "Most of them are drug-addicted criminals and work with militias," says Mohammad, the Iraqi police chief, of his National Police counterparts.

"When will Iraq get better?" asks Mohammad rhetorically. "Every 100 meters there is a checkpoint for a different group: Iraqi police, Pesh Merga, Badr corps. Most Iraqis have two ID's, one [so they can pass for Shi'ite] and one [so they can pass for Sunni]." The checkpoints serve at least one purpose, says Sheikh Ali, the Shi'ite CLC Godfather of Saha market: the guards burn the neighborhood's trash at night to keep warm. "The goats are starting to complain about that," he jokes.

Sheikh Ali is sitting in a cafe with U.S. Army Captain Kevin Wynes, a civil affairs officer assigned to the 2-2 Stryker Cavalry Regiment in southern Baghdad. Wynes is on his third tour in Iraq and he tells Sheikh Ali that they are partners in defeating the militants and reconstructing the neighborhood. Says Wynes: "We've been partners from the beginning and we'll be partners until the end." Sheikh Ali smiles and nods and tells the bright-eyed and chiseled-jawed Wynes: "Yes — and when we occupy America we'll be partners in your neighborhood."