By David Mays
Special to American Forces Press Service
Oct. 10, 2007 - Iraqi citizens are reaching across sectarian lines and volunteering in unprecedented numbers to drive out terrorists and reconcile their country, a coalition military commander said today. "These are Iraqi volunteers who are stepping forward at the local level in different villages and different cities," Army Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner said. "They are most importantly taking a stand to fight the extremists and take a direct role in improving security in their communities."
Bergner, the Multinational Force Iraq deputy chief of staff for strategic effects, spoke with online journalists and "bloggers" shortly after conducting an operational briefing from Baghdad.
"It's what we had seen in Anbar (province) as an important catalyst that the sheiks of Anbar helped orchestrate," Bergner said. "Now it's a continuing enabler we see evolving much more broadly across Iraq."
During the course of the "Anbar awakening," primarily Sunni citizens formed neighborhood watch groups at the behest of tribal and religious leaders, then helped coalition forces drive al Qaeda terrorists out of their communities west of Baghdad. Bergner said that same type of anti-terror movement is sweeping communities throughout Iraq.
"You'll see Shiia concerned local citizens and you'll see Sunni concerned local citizens in the hundreds," he said. "As you get to the level where there are more and more of these groups, it's a challenge for the government of Iraq."
Part of that challenge, the general explained, is turning unpaid security assignments into professional positions. Many concerned local citizens expect that their vigilant volunteer service will eventually translate to a steady paycheck.
"This basically brings people who were formerly fighting against the government of Iraq or against security forces or the coalition, and it gives them a path to either matriculate into the legitimate security forces of Iraq or pursue employment opportunities or other ways to become part of the solution in their communities," Bergner said. "That's how this will logically play out: the government of Iraq takes ownership."
Some volunteers may become police officers, as 1,700 concerned citizen volunteers did in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib neighborhood, the general explained. Others may become paid members of the Iraqi army or work on infrastructure projects in the country, Bergner said.
"Most importantly here, these groups have one thing in common," the general said. "They have found the courage to take a stand and begin fighting against the extremists."
Bergner said Iraq's central government is taking overt steps to support concerned local citizens groups and their work to defeat insurgents.
"The government of Iraq, the prime minister of Iraq, has taken a pretty courageous stand here in supporting and encouraging Iraqi citizens to come forward and to oppose al Qaeda, oppose other extremist groups and to help find ways for them to work with their own security forces," the general said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been meeting with leaders of local volunteer citizen networks, both Shiia and Sunni, the general explained.
"There actually is a significant amount of outreach under way, and it has crossed sectarian lines," Bergner said.
Ultimately, each Iraqi citizen, whether working for a police force, the military or elsewhere, must find a meaningful way to contribute to his or her community, Bergner explained, and that will take time, money and patience.
"It's a work in progress," he said. "But I would say most importantly, it's in progress."
(David Mays works in New Media at American Forces Information Service.)