CAMP ASSASSIN, Iraq (AFP) — "Tell me what you need and I'll get it for you." The US general is opening his proverbial chequebook to leaders of Iraq's concerned citizens groups.
"Tell me how I can help you," asks Major General Rick Lynch, commander of US-led forces in central Iraq.
US commanders are unashamedly buying the loyalty of Iraqi tribal leaders and junior officials, a strategy they trumpet as a major success but which critics fear will lead to hidden costs in terms of militia and sectarian strife.
These low-level Iraqi leaders from the Madain area south of Baghdad are meeting top US military brass for the second time in four days.
Their first gathering featured the overall commander of US forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus -- proof that concerned citizens are now right at the forefront of the US war effort.
A Sunni sheikh who lost his son to an Al-Qaeda suicide bomber tells Lynch he needs more bodyguards as he has hardly left his house in three months for fear of attack. Others list money, drinkable water, more uniforms, more projects.
One mentions weapons, but the general insists: "I can give you money to work in terms of improving the area. What I cannot do -- this is very important -- is give you weapons."
The gravity of the war council in a tent at the US forward operating base at Camp Assasssin is suspended for a few moments as one of the local Iraqi leaders says jokingly but knowingly: "Don't worry! Weapons are cheap in Iraq."
"That's right, that's exactly right," laughs Lynch in reply.
But Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki would not be laughing. While the US generals view the groups as a bulwark against extremism, Maliki and others steeped in the logic of sectarian conflict fear they are an armed Sunni opposition in the making.
His concern is not surprising -- the bulk of US money and support for these groups is going to Sunnis, whose heartlands around the capital the military so desperately needs to turn around.
"Right now I've got 34 concerned citizen groups under contract and that is costing me 7.5 million dollars every 60-90 days," Lynch tells AFP, adding that 25 groups are Sunni, nine Shiite.
Maliki threatened earlier this month to rein in such activity and bring it under the control of the Iraqi army amid accusations one Sunni group was involved in kidnapping, killing and blackmailing in Baghdad.
Lynch scoffs at the suggestion his groups will become the militias of the future.
"Their concern is their citizens, their area. They're not trying to create vigilante groups that are going to go all round Iraq, they are trying to secure their area.
"We watch 'em all the time so if it looks like their starting to do strange things we can stop them."
But this hardly seems like a programme the US commanders could switch off overnight.
What started in August as a low-key initiative on the back of the "awakening" by an alliance of Sunni sheikhs against Al-Qaeda in the restive Anbar province has mushroomed in two months into a major strategy in several regions.
"I now have more concerned citizens than coalition troops," boasts Lynch, who reckons his present cast of more than 21,000 concerned citizens will "exponentially grow."
Under the scheme, local people are allowed to arm themselves and are paid up to 300 dollars a month to handle their own security by manning checkpoints and patrolling, while the military receives tip offs on insurgents' activities.
"They know that after you clear out the insurgents, infrastructure projects start coming," says Lieutenant-Colonel John Kolasheski.
"People start to see the visible improvement then it becomes more difficult for extremists to get back in there because the people realise: 'right now the coalition is focused on us making things better'."
Lynch puts it to them more succinctly: "We can clear, then you can hold."
But the Iraqi local leaders are fearful that "holding" is hard if desperately needed infrastructure projects on non-existent streets and blocked sewers are too long in coming.
"Projects we request are going very very slowly. People are using this against us saying we are not doing anything about it," says Shiite official Abdul Razzaq Haida.
Concerned citizens groups were born out of the everyday hell created by Al-Qaeda and warring militias and the Americans cleverly offered a positive alternative to fill that vacuum.
However, leaders of these fledgling groupings are mindful that the mood could quickly change.
"We are concerned we will lose what we have accomplished. We need support to keep it in place," says Sunni tribal leader Mohamed Abas Kais.
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