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Fifteen minutes later, he had made it through checkpoints and concrete blast barriers en route to his home in al-Amil district of west Baghdad. At a makeshift barricade close to the street where he was born he greeted the sentries as friends. Then he unzipped his kit bag and pulled out a Kalashnikov. And for the next six uneventful hours he stood guard with his peers behind the straggles of barbed wire.
"I help to keep the peace so that I can row in peace, and that is my passion," said Muhammad, who asked that neither his real name nor that of his rowing club be used. "Now when I go out on the river, you can hear the birds and the hum of the generators. When I began it was only gunfire and bombs."
Muhammad is one of the thousands of young Baghdadi men to have joined neighbourhood security groups, which have mushroomed over the last year and are a crucial factor in the dramatic decline in civilian deaths. US soldiers call them "concerned local citizens"; Iraqis just call them sahwa (awakening) after the so-called Anbar awakening in western Iraq, which has seen Sunni tribal sheikhs take on foreign-led Islamists.
There are now an estimated 72,000 members in some 300 groups set up in 12 of Iraq's 18 provinces, and the numbers are growing. They are funded, but supposedly not armed, by the US military. "It is Iraq's own surge," said a western diplomat, "and it is certainly making a difference."