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by Geraldo Rivera | Nov 27, 2007

Iraq is a graveyard for optimism, but it is hard not to feel at least a tremor of hope after spending an afternoon like I just did, in a Baghdad neighborhood that was once one of the deadliest in this blood-soaked country. It is called Ameriyah, and to give you an example, last May 14 American soldiers were killed there in a series of attacks, seven in a single day. Al Queda was everywhere in this predominantly Sunni neighborhood, its death squads terrorizing the minority Shiites, imposing strict Islamic law and killing between 15 and 20 civilians a week.

In a single month this summer, authorities found 70 bodies there. Many of the murder victims beheaded and also often found tortured. Then something extraordinary happened, the Sunnis, insurgents and all, changed sides, saying they were sickened by the slaughter. Guided by the courage and patience of our GI's, hundreds of the former rebels went from being Al Queda's best friends to their worst enemies. Led by a former Iraqi intelligence officer, a major named Abu Abed, a force of around paid and unpaid 600 volunteers have chased the terrorists from the neighborhood they once ruled. Now the 25-30,000 residents of Ameriyah are statistically safer than the residents of some big American cities.

The GI's of the 1/5 (First Battalion, Fifth) Cavalry Regiment tell me there has not been a hostile attack on them since August; extraordinary in a brutal neighborhood where in Spring corpses littered the streets and GI's could not drive through without being shot at, sometimes several times a day. The volunteer force is called F.A.R. for Forsan Al Rafideen, which translates as Knights of the Land of the Two Rivers, a reference to Iraq's ancient past. Many of the FAR volunteers are local, so they know who and where the bad guys are. The local religious leaders have embraced them, while rejecting Al Queda's fanatic fundamentalism, and right now, both religious and volunteer militia are on our side.

But while they have forged a close working relationship with American forces, helping man checkpoints, build and maintain the life-saving concrete barriers and creating an environment in which residents feel safe even coming outdoors at night, the Shiite-dominated central government has so far refused to recognize the mostly Sunni volunteer force or incorporate it into the regular police force. The government fears FAR and groups like it will become renegades led by a local warlord. It is a fear the US. battalion commander Lt. Colonel Dale Kuehl tells me is misguided. He thinks that Abu Abed and his volunteers are the ray of hope this community needed, if only the Baghdad bureaucrats agreed.

"The central government has virtually no contact with these communities," he told me as we toured Ameriyah. "So the U.S. Army with the help of these volunteers is essentially doing what the government should be doing, providing essential services, security and acting as liaison with the local council."

At its heart, the problem is as fundamental and ancient as it is critical: the government is dominated by one sect, the volunteers belong to the other. The Shiites just don't trust the Sunnis and their centuries old blood feud, exacerbated by the brutal Saddam years has built a legacy of hatred and mistrust that represents the biggest obstacle the U.S. faces in trying to forge a viable functional government. They just can't stomach the idea that their bitter foes can act in the national interest.

Walking through Ameriyah with the FAR volunteers, down streets where it would have been suicide for an American to walk just six months ago, I came to understand their biggest fear. It isn't fighting Al Queda. It is that when we go, the government will order the force dismantled and their neighborhood will return to the killing ground it was so recently. "It would be a disaster," Abu Abed told me passionately. "If the Americans leave Al Qaeda will return."

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