BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A rag-tag band of men toting AK-47s at a checkpoint in Baghdad's Sadr City forms part of a plan to strengthen the Iraqi Army's hold over a bastion of anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
The men, wearing tan uniforms and baseball caps with "Smirnoff" inexplicably blazoned across them, belong to one of the first groups of a new neighborhood guard to take to the streets of the sprawling district under a U.S.-funded program.
U.S.-backed neighborhood patrol units, sometimes called "Sons of Iraq," have spread in mainly Sunni Arab areas of Iraq to beef up security and combat al Qaeda insurgents.
The U.S. military says such groups helped cut violence in Iraq to its lowest level in more than four years in May.
The neighborhood guard in Sadr City is the first attempt to set up such a force in the Baghdad stronghold of Sadr's Mehdi Army militia. The poor, east Baghdad slum of two million people has largely been outside the government's control for years.
U.S. forces are paying local residents $300 a month to guard their area and search vehicles for guns or explosives.
"I'm here to protect my neighborhood, to protect my family and to protect my country," said Qais Ali al-Moussawi, 32, one of the latest class of recruits to take a three-day training program run by Iraqi soldiers at a U.S. base near Baghdad.
Hundreds of people were killed in battles in Sadr City between U.S. and Iraqi forces and the Mehdi Army in March and April. A May 10 truce ended the fighting and, 10 days later, some 10,000 Iraqi troops entered the district unopposed.
The new neighborhood guard is part of U.S. and Iraqi efforts to consolidate the government's grip on Sadr City and prevent the militias regaining the upper hand.
The militia has lost popular support among many residents of Sadr City because of its violence and extortion.
At a graduation ceremony, Iraqi Army trainers do not specifically mention the Mehdi Army as the neighborhood guard's adversary but new recruits are under no illusions they could become targets because they are helping Iraqi and U.S. forces.
"We received a threat from the Mehdi Army ... but we don't care," said Abbas Kadhim Musa, 41, a supervisor at a guard checkpoint in southern Sadr City.
"If they are brave, let them show up to face us," he said.
Sadr City takes its name from Moqtada al-Sadr's father, a revered Shi'ite cleric. Posters of father and son are plastered on signposts and buildings all over the area.
By paying local people to guard the streets, the U.S. Army hopes to give an economic lift to a high jobless zone and offer young men a more attractive option than joining the Mehdi Army.
"I think the biggest part of it is to let the local nationals get a stake in what is going on in their neighborhoods," said Staff Sergeant Frederick Duke, a U.S. soldier working with Iraqi soldiers training the guards.
The salary is more than local people "are being paid on the open market for planting IEDs," he said, referring to roadside bombs, the biggest killer of American troops in Iraq.
U.S. forces are also working to improve the southern part of Sadr City by giving small grants to local business owners, installing generators to power houses, and cleaning up the area around Jamila market, one of Baghdad's key wholesale outlets.
The Iraqi Army has been finding weapons caches each day in Sadr City and clamping down on extortion of Jamila market traders, a key militia financing source, said Lieutenant-Colonel Yehya Rasool, an Iraqi Army commander in the area.
He said many Mehdi Army members had fled or been detained. "There are some Mehdi Army still over there but with broken morale. They are, you can say, broken," Rasool told Reuters.
So far about 500 new guards have been trained out of a planned total of 1,300, said Major Mike Humphreys, a spokesman for the 3rd U.S. Brigade Combat Team.
The recruits, ranging from 17 to middle-aged, learn to fire AK-47s, search vehicles and detain suspects. The Iraqi Army gives them an AK-47 and ammunition seized from weapons caches.
New recruits, who were previously jobless or worked as laborers or taxi drivers, say the pay is good and that many of their friends want to join. Recruits are vetted to exclude those with a criminal background, U.S. officers say.
Mohammed Mahmood, an Iraqi Army sergeant who has helped train 300 recruits over the past month, said some once belonged to the Mehdi Army.
"But when they realized a salary is paid here, they started to work here," he said.
Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim; Editing by Samia Nakhoul