MUELHA, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraqi police Captain Abdul-Rahman al-Tamimi lined up the men to give them what he called the first rule on manning a road checkpoint.
“If your father comes here at night. Do not trust him. Frisk him,” he said, leaning on his AK-47 automatic rifle.
“No sectarianism at this checkpoint. We are all Iraqis. Your aim is the same aim of the police: Get rid of terrorism.”
While the majority of neighborhood police units across Iraq are made up exclusively from Sunni or Shi’ite Muslims, this unit in the village of Muelha in Babel province south of Baghdad is an unusual example of efforts towards national reconciliation.
The 11 men present, wearing reflective yellow belts and armed with AK-47s, are members of four tribes from the two Muslim sects that have been locked in a vicious cycle of tit- for-tat violence that has killed tens of thousands of people.
Their tribal sheikhs say they are fed up with slow progress towards reconciliation by Shi’ite and Sunni politicians and the fighting between Shi’ite militias and Sunni al Qaeda gunmen, who have infiltrated their communities to recruit fighters.
Two joint checkpoints were set up in religiously mixed Muelha last week to control a road cutting through crop fields dividing Sunni and Shi’ite communities in the village. Militants from both sects have been using the road to launch attacks.
“There was some tension that the killings caused,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Getchell, commander of the 2nd Battalion of the 502 Infantry Regiment, part of the 3rd Infantry Division Taskforce.
“But I think that them coming together, and manning checkpoints together, has eased some of that tension,” he said.
U.S. and Iraqi officials credit neighborhood police units, along with the deployment of 30,000 extra U.S. troops, for a big drop in bloodshed across Iraq in recent months.
In the provinces south of Baghdad, 26,000 men have enrolled in the neighborhood police patrols. Out of 96 units, only 16 are mixed, while 50 are exclusively Sunni and 30 are Shi’ite, the U.S. military says.
The incident that led to the creation of the two joint checkpoints in Muelha was the assassination of Emad al-Gertani, a prominent Sunni tribal sheikh more than a month ago by a suspected al Qaeda suicide bomber from a fellow Sunni tribe.
The killing sparked tension among Sunnis in the village. Some of them also accused Shi’ite tribes of allowing the assassin to pass through their areas.
“That was a very tense time for the people of Muelha,” Getchell told Reuters. “I was very concerned that it would trigger ... (mutual) accusations and violence.”
Shortly afterwards, however, tribal leaders from both sects agreed to set up the two joint checkpoints to improve security and stem sectarian tension.
“We are one family. We are Iraqis. No Sunnis and Shi’ites,” said Riyadh Salama, a Sunni, standing at one checkpoint.
Shakir Naji Abbas, a 36-year-old Shi’ite farmer, pointed to a mattress in a makeshift guard post where he said he sleeps next to his Sunni colleagues.
Despite a sharp improvement in security in Iraq since June, Shi’ite and Sunni Arab politicians remain deeply divided over how to share power, stalling the passage of laws through parliament seen as vital to fostering national reconciliation.
For the men at the checkpoint, the reason why they were able to solve their problems faster than the politicians was easy.
“The government is not as tired and fed up as us,” said 20-year-old Ali Abdul-Aziz, a Shi’ite. “The Shi’ites are tired, the Sunnis are tired. Our demands are simple: we want security.”
But despite the apparent progress in Muelha, some remain fearful of the road ahead.
Tamimi, the police captain, said he was initially reluctant to place two of his men at each joint checkpoint, fearing for their lives if the tribes turned against them.
The delay in deploying the policemen spread fear among some members of the neighborhood police units, who said their weapons were not enough to protect them from militant attacks.
When police failed to show up at the checkpoints for three days, men from three Sunni tribes did not report to duty, prompting Getchell and Tamimi to visit their leaders to reassure them that police protection was available.
“It is not easy for me to leave four policemen alone. But we have a difficult road ahead of us. We all have to make sacrifices,” Tamimi told one sheikh of the Gertani tribe.
Major Adil ElNour, a U.S. army officer in charge of reconciliation in the area, said that despite their fears, Shi’ite and Sunni residents of Muelha wanted to work for peace.
“Everybody has realized that enough is enough,” he said.
Editing by Samia Nakhoul