AN NAJAF, Iraq -- Emerging from the ashes of a regime that handled dissent with an iron fist, a group of residents in An Najaf are taking the first steps of freedom tentative by banding together to fight crime and make local government attentive to their needs.
With help from the governate support team working with 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, based in 29 Palms, Calif., residents of the Mukrama neighborhood kicked off its first meeting of the Jameial Al-Noor Al-khairia, a community group modeled after neighborhood watch groups in the United States.
In a neighborhood school, local men, woman and children crowded into its largest room of and talked over problems they all faced. As in America, crime was the number one topic of discussion at the inaugural meeting.
"My house has been broken into eight times," said Jafar Jwad Abdul-Rasool through an interpreter. "Where are the police? Where is the coalition?"
With heads nodding and others voicing similar sentiments Abdual-Rassool, who is the father of ten children ranging in age of five to 26 years old, wants the newly-formed community patrol to carry AK-47 assault rifles so they could deal with the criminals themselves.
"That is a job for the police," said Holly C. Malueg, a civil-military program coordinator with the 432nd Civil Affairs Battalion, an Army Reserve unit based in Green Bay, Wis. "The police will not allow you to carry around guns."
As the director of the community group, Kassim Muhamamed Al-Mayali tries to keep the meeting on track while Malueg also tries to keep up with the exchanges through her interpreter.
"He has done a lot of work to get this thing off the ground," said Malueg, who as a civilian is a bank loan officer of Wisconsin Rapids, Wis. "He wants coalition help but he really does not need anything from us. About the only thing I did was make some calls so they could use this school for this meeting but other than that they have done it all."
She explains that under the old regime, nobody was allowed to take any initiative without approval from the Ba'ath Party, so Al-Mayali is not absolutely sure how far he can push for change.
"I heard about groups like this from other countries," said Al-Mayali a long-time resident of Najaf and a reporter for a local newspaper. "I saw a need for our people to get information and help and to make this a better environment to raise a family."
They got its start a few weeks ago when members of the community went to the police to complain about crime in their neighborhood, Al-Mayali said. When the police told them that they were in the process of reorganizing and that they did not have the man-power to patrol their neighborhood, he recalled how other communities police themselves and contacted the police department during signs of trouble.
One of the biggest complaints the neighborhood had according to Al-Mayali was the amount of gunfire at night.
It is not unusual for a wedding or a funeral to be punctuated by firing AK 47 rifles into the air, according to Staff Sgt. Mary Antone a law enforcement specialist with 432nd.
"You should see all the tracer rounds in the sky some nights," said Antone, who is a detective Sgt. with the Green Bay, Wis., Police Department in his civilian job. "Even the local cops get scared."
"On the first night of the patrol they reported not one gun shot all night," said Malueg. "I think that is a good indicator that they are doing great."
Although the night watch program is showing signs of success, the group wants to reverse decades of neglect right away.
"We must be patient, said Al- Mayali to the group. "We are capable of great things but we must work together."
Aside the discussing problems of crime, the group also discussed building a community center and a health clinic in the neighborhood.
"The woman also told me that they need more shops in the area," Malueg said. "They say they have to walk far away to buy food for their families."
Although not many tangible things were accomplished in the first meeting, Malueg was able to given them all some good news. Because of the enthusiasm of the community she was able to arrange to have the school that doubles as their headquarters moved up on project list to get rehabilitated right away.
"We must forget the past and look to our future," Al- Mayali said. "Education and jobs for us to work is our future."