TAJI, Iraq -- When U.S. soldiers moved into an abandoned wool factory near here two months ago, they were pounded with bombs, mortar shells and gunfire.
"We were not really well-received," Capt. David Fulton said.
The fighting around this town north of Baghdad went on for a month, until local Sunni Muslim tribesmen decided that they had had enough of the insurgents in their midst and started working with the Americans. About 220 of those tribesmen now staff checkpoints and have started cooperating with Shiite counterparts who once were their enemies, said Fulton, an Army company commander.
Experiences like these have persuaded the U.S. military command to step up efforts to recruit armed residents as local protection forces, authorizing its officers to use emergency cash and other funds at their disposal to strike contracts with tribal leaders.
The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, credited that strategy yesterday with beginning to turn around an insurgent haven as he toured the region of dusty villages, citrus plantations, fish farms and palm groves near Taji, about 12 miles north of the capital.
But the Shiite-led Iraqi government, which has been under intense U.S. pressure to dismantle Shiite militias, complains that the policy legitimizes what they regard as the Sunni equivalent.
"They solve one problem by creating another," said Sami al-Askari, an aide to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and a member of his Islamic Dawa Party. "This is a seed for civil war."
Al-Maliki wants the volunteers screened before they are allowed to carry weapons, and he wants them incorporated into security forces under the government's control, al-Askari said.
The strategy has been the subject of heated discussion between al-Maliki and Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, both sides acknowledged yesterday. But Petraeus dismissed as "ludicrous" a report that al-Maliki felt he could no longer work with the general.
"This is really, really hard stuff, and occasionally people agree to disagree," he said.
With the country's largest Sunni bloc suspending participation in his Cabinet, al-Maliki needs the support of Shiite conservatives in his governing coalition, who are angry about U.S. raids targeting Shiite militants.
Petraeus acknowledged the government's concerns about working with Sunni tribes.
"Obviously there is a concern, particularly in the areas where al-Qaida had sanctuaries, that some of them may have had ties with them before," he said. "But at the end of the day, situations like this historically have been resolved by the local citizens helping with local security."
In the long term, he said, the goal is to find jobs for the tribal volunteers in the Iraqi security forces. But it can take months to get them screened and trained.
In the meantime, "We applaud when they turn their guns against al-Qaida," Petraeus said.
U.S. commanders are not allowed to put the fighters on salaries. But they can dip into their discretionary funds to offer rewards or pay for short-term, renewable contracts to protect what the military regards as "critical infrastructure." Around Taji, tribesmen run checkpoints, and guard schools and water-treatment plants. Tribesmen recently rebuilt a blown-up bridge.
Compensation typically runs from $100 to $300 per person per month, said Col. Mike Meese, a member of Petraeus' staff. The deals are signed by sheiks, who must vouch for their men. U.S. soldiers also collect each person's name, address, fingerprints and other information, Meese said.
Petraeus said the U.S. military is authorized to provide weapons only to the official security forces, but his commanders help the volunteers with food, fuel and, occasionally, ammunition.
U.S. commanders report a significant drop in attacks in the areas where they are working with the tribesmen. They say insurgents are offering $300 to $30,000 to plant a single bomb in areas under the control of tribal volunteers, a sign of how much more difficult it has become to do the job.
Petraeus said the cooperation between the Iraqi security forces and tribesmen in Taji was bringing security and commerce back.
In Baghdad, authorities planned stepped-up patrols today as they intensified security to prevent a repeat of car bombings that killed dozens of revelers celebrating Iraq's progress to the finals of Asia's top soccer tournament last week. Fans prepared to celebrate if their national team beats Saudi Arabia and takes the Asian Cup for the first time.
In violence yesterday, four Iraqi special forces commandos were killed and four were injured when a bomber targeted their patrol in Samarra, police said.
Alexandra Zavis writes for the Los Angeles Times.