By Army Staff Sgt. Mark Burrell
Special to American Forces Press Service
June 1, 2009 - At an Iraqi army base in the Sadr City district here, 302 civil project workers put on fresh clothes for their monthly payday May 28. Their project, funded by the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division's 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, paid out about $100,000 to workers from the district's Jamilla neighborhood, said Army Sgt. 1st Class Kurt Blankenship, an infantryman and operations noncommissioned officer assigned to the battalion's joint operations cell.
Each civil project worker earns about $300 a month, Blankenship said.
"It's a win-win situation," he added. "We're providing jobs for local [residents], and we're also having them clean up their own areas while at the same time, we're getting tips and leads."
The workers clean up their neighborhoods and help out with security by functioning as a neighborhood watch, said Army Sgt. 1st Class Marc Dixon, a tanker platoon sergeant assigned to the battalion's Company B.
"To help coalition forces, they man various checkpoints throughout their neighborhoods, or muhallas," Dixon said. "As they man their checkpoints, they are the eyes and ears for coalition forces. When we conduct patrols throughout the day or night, we stop off at the checkpoints, and they'll inform us if there's any suspicious activity, and they'll also let their local Iraqi army and Iraqi police know if there's anything suspicious going on."
Dixon said the program has been a success, and is one of the main factors behind a sharp decrease in violence in the area.
"It keeps [them] doing something positive for their community, for themselves and for their families," Dixon said as his company's soldiers pulled security duty for the payday event. "If we offer them good jobs, it keeps them off the streets, plus it lets them see us, as Americans, not being the bad guys -- that we're in their country trying to help them earn that respect and responsibility while we're here."
A table was set up and manned by a local sheik and soldiers as the Iraqi workers queued up outside with their identification cards, waiting to be paid.
"We worked hard and earned the money by helping security and helping clean the community up," said Sheik Mohammed Ali Mutar, a contracting officer for the project. The contracting officer supplies the workers with food while on guard and other equipment they need to perform their duties, Blankenship said.
Mohammed said that during the past month, the vigilant workers have reported suspicious people and improvised explosive devices, found illegal weapons caches and reported high-value targets.
"If they're not watching out for the neighborhood, they're cleaning up, picking up trash and making sure their area is squared away," Dixon said. He also commented on the large improvements his soldiers have seen in the area regarding litter.
"It gives them responsibility," he said. "Instead of carrying a weapon, ... the broom symbolizes that right now, it's time to clean up their areas ... to show their neighbors it's time to pick up the community and raise ourselves back up to where we were."
Blankenship agreed. "I'm not saying that these guys are perfect," he said. "But I'll tell you, the majority of them want to help. They want to be there to help you, and they want to be right beside us on patrol if they could."
But even though they're not carrying weapons, Blankenship added, the workers are making a key contribution to security.
"Instead of carrying weapons," he said, "they're manned with brooms and shovels." But, those aren't their only tools. The workers also are armed with their eyes and ears, he added, and most importantly, with their pride.
(Army Staff Sgt. Mark Burrell serves in the Multinational Division Baghdad public affairs office.)