updated 1/19/2008 8:29:12 AM ET 2008-01-19T13:29:12

They know him as the sheik. But what that really means in this Sunni town is a bit of everything: community leader, public works supervisor, agricultural planner, militia captain.

It also helps explain why Maher al-Moaeini and his 500 men threw their lot with the U.S.-led fight against al-Qaida in Iraq. The American military could deliver the goods -- from steady paychecks for the militiamen to seeds for farmers.

Mutual bargains such as these _ U.S. aid and respect to Sunnis in exchange for their fighting power _ drive the so-called Awakening Council movement that has marked one of the most significant shifts in the power balance in Iraq since the insurgency took root in 2004.

But it also exposes possible longterm weaknesses of the pacts.

Sunnis across Iraq -- more than 70,000 at last count -- are turning to the Pentagon as generous patrons and allies. Yet it could all sour quickly if the U.S. assistance to Sunnis dries up or the Shiite-led government resists Washington's pressure to reward the Sunni militiamen with jobs in the security forces.

The first Sunni clans made cautious overtures to U.S. commanders last year in the western Anbar province, then the main insurgent staging grounds. As more Sunni tribes joined the uprising, al-Qaida and its supporters found their footholds shrinking. And a delighted U.S. military kept sweetening the pot for more Sunni allies who felt ignored by the Shiite-led government.

Not easy to pass up
For many Sunni community leaders, like Sheik al-Moaeini, these are spoils they cannot easily pass up.

The U.S. military pays salaries of $300 a month -- good by Iraqi standards -- to the more than 500 Sunni fighters in Hawr Rajab, a farming community about six miles southeast of Baghdad. These are critical forces these days as a major U.S. offensive targets al-Qaida pockets around the capital.

The military also has provided the town's farmers with seeds and paid to clear irrigation canals and repair water pumps. The Americans also offer grants to small businesses and create jobs such as trash collection and street sweeping.

Lt. Col. Mark Solomon, the local U.S. commander from the 3rd Infantry Division, also wants to build an ice factory for Hawr Rajab before Iraq's suffocating summer arrives in May.

But the projects and posts are worth far more than their sum total from the Sunni perspective. They represent important signs of honor and hope -- which they claim have not come from the Shiite leadership that replaced Saddam Hussein's Sunni-centric regime.

"The government does nothing for us. It has kept us out of the army, the police and jobs," al-Moaeini said at an abandoned shoe factory that his Awakening Council fighters use as a headquarters. The U.S. military wants to revive the factory.

Baghdad also has done little to improve basic services in Hawr Rajab, such as electricity and drinking water, or supply the town with heating fuel sorely needed during one of the harshest winters in years.

The U.S. military views the Sunnis as a major contributor to the recent reduction of violence and a counterweight to Shiite militias with close links to Iran.

Government deeply worried
The Shiite-dominated government remains deeply worried the Sunni fighters will one day again turn their guns against the establishment.

The bigger question, however, is whether the U.S.-Sunni alliances will hold as the Pentagon tries to turn over more security responsibilities and policies to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

In Washington, Lt. Gen. James Dubik, head of the Multi-National Security Transition Command, predicted Thursday that Iraqi security forces are on track to add 80,000 more personnel by year's end, putting them well within reach of their goal of more than 600,000.

But Dubik also repeated a forecast from the defense minister, who said Iraq probably won't assume responsibility for internal security until as late as 2012 and would not be able to defend its borders until at least 2018.

"We will stop being allies with the Americans if the government starts looking after us," said the 37-year-old al-Moaeini, who wears traditional Arab dress and sports a goatee.

"But we will still be friends with the Americans and invite them to tea every time they drive through the town," he added, flashing a smile at Solomon, who was seated next to him on a recent tour of the old shoe factory, where the floors were littered with hundreds of dusty plastic sandals.

Al-Moaeini appeared to treat Solomon with respect, but not the kind of lavish welcome shown to the highest-ranking military brass. The two men, however, have grown comfortable in each other's company.

During their chat last week, Solomon warned al-Moaeini of the dangers of smoking and the sheik shared hunting tips. "Next time, you must tell me that you are coming so I can prepare lunch," he told Solomon.

Al-Moaeini said as many as 200 residents had been killed -- some execution-style -- when al-Qaida ruled Hawr Rajab from 2004 until late last year.

"They went after the symbols of our town so they could control the simple folks. They killed the educated, the tribal chiefs and former army officers," he said, rubbing his hands close to a kerosene heater he placed in front of him and Solomon.

Al-Moaeini also recounted how he was detained by Americans for 18 months in 2005-2006 after an arms cache was found buried near his home. He says he was unjustly imprisoned, but claims he bears no grudge.

"I was treated with respect as a clan chief. I was not humiliated," he said. "It was like a five-star hotel, really. Imagine if I had spent that time in an Iraqi jail?"

Solomon appeared amused and shot back: "Did we really find weapons near your home? I don't believe it," he quipped.

"He and his men have thought long and hard before they decided to join us," said Solomon, who began a second tour of Iraq in November. "As time goes by, it will be less likely for them to turn against us. At the end, they want to secure their communities and feed their families."

Residents back
Most of the town's residents are now back after many of them fled to neighboring countries or the overwhelmingly Sunni province of Anbar. Shops that had been closed for two years or more have reopened.

The military has set up positions in and around the town, leasing large homes to use as outposts.

"My captain is routinely invited to the town's weddings and funerals," said Solomon, 40, a native of Burlington, Mass.

Conditions in Hawr Rajab contrast sharply with the area to its south, where U.S. troops have hit suspected al-Qaida positions with devastating airstrikes. There, farms lay fallow, houses are abandoned and the blackened hulks of burned cars dot the landscape.

But Hawr Rajab still has problems. Solomon met with a flurry of complaints about power and water outages and a shortage of gasoline and kerosene.

Restaurant owner Fawzi Kareem, a 40-year-old father of five, pointed to two children on the sidewalk with two jerry cans full of gasoline. "This is where we can find petrol, on the black market."

There is also grumbling about Shiite banners and images of Shiite saints displayed by Iraqi soldiers in town. Solomon said he planned to ask his Iraqi army counterpart to remove them in the spirit of unity with Sunnis.

"I don't anticipate any resistance when I ask him," he said. "They should come down."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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