Abu Abed

Abu Abed, far right, is shown with members of his paramilitary group in this 2007 photo. (Ned Parker / Los Angeles Times)

"Abu Abed, you're a hero," the retired Shiite teacher shouted from the home she had fled last winter, when the bodies of Shiites were being dumped daily in the streets of her Amiriya neighborhood.

The fighter, wearing green camouflage and dark wraparound sunglasses, kept walking, his hand swinging a black MP-5 submachine gun.

No more than 5 feet 6, with a roll of baby fat, this Sunni Muslim gunman is an unlikely savior of Amiriya: a former intelligence officer in Saddam Hussein's army, a suspected onetime insurgent, a man who has photos of his brothers' mutilated corpses loaded in his cellphone.

To many Iraqis, Abu Abed is a Sunni warlord whose followers have spilled the blood of Shiite Muslim civilians and U.S. troops. But to the people in Amiriya, he is the man who has, with ruthless efficiency, restored order to a neighborhood where the insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq held sway.

With the nation's politics deadlocked, the U.S. military has pinned its hopes for reconciliation in Iraq on the shoulders of such unknowable men. Abu Abed may have a shadowy past, and checkered present, but he has taken on extremists in his Sunni sect, and says he is willing to make peace with Iraq's Shiite-led government.

One worry for the government is that paramilitary groups such as Abu Abed's will seek to use their new relationships with the Americans to position themselves for another round of fighting with Iraq's Shiite leadership when U.S. forces have withdrawn.

"The risks are that these guys go back into an insurgency, perhaps better organized and better motivated than they were in the past, and that's what you want to avoid," said a U.S. diplomat who has helped recruit Sunni tribes and insurgents to police neighborhoods, and who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Abu Abed's pacification methods are merciless. Since he declared all-out war on the fighters who were terrorizing the neighborhood, he has killed members of Al Qaeda in Iraq, burned their hide-outs, plastered Amiriya's walls with pictures of their corpses and broken his knuckles three times hitting disloyal members of his militia or prisoners.He claims his motivations are simple.

"I have a basic principle to fight anybody who is hurting my fellow citizens," he said. "That's why I cooperated in 2004 with the Americans and started to work against Al Qaeda."

His 600-man paramilitary force, the Knights in the Land of the Two Rivers, is virtually the law in Amiriya, a district of marble-adorned villas and date palms where thousands of well-heeled Sunnis and Shiite professionals lived under Hussein. He has allowed a modicum of normality to return to the neighborhood's streets, where shops now stay open until late in the evening and no bodies have been found since August.

At least 70 Shiite families have moved back to the area in the last three months under his protection. With the government absent, people go to him with their problems, sometimes personal ones. Men have asked him for advice on erectile dysfunction, and once a newlywed bride demanded that Abu Abed grant her a divorce after her husband failed to consummate their relationship.

American commanders have called on Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri Maliki, to seize upon the lull in violence to reconcile with Sunnis, many of whom had previously fought U.S. troops and the Iraqi government.

"They want to participate now, and the government has to allow them to do it," said Maj. Barry Daniels of the Army's 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, which is assigned to Amiriya. "I think if they feel they have a stake in their future, there is hope. If they do not, I am not very optimistic."

Abu Abed wants to bring his men into the Iraqi security forces, even though he is deeply suspicious of the ruling Shiite parties. In 2005, his two brothers were detained in a late-night raid by the national police force, which has been infiltrated by Shiite militias. Their mutilated bodies were found three weeks later on the Iranian border.

In the pictures on his cellphone, one brother has a nail driven through his head, the other has a hand chopped off. Abu Abed has hard feelings and lingering suspicions about government officials, but says he has no choice but to deal with them.

"I have to take jobs with the government," he said at his headquarters in a pink schoolhouse. "If I don't, there will be more people kidnapped and killed."

Abu Abed, who is in his late 30s, does not look like a former military intelligence officer except for his ramrod military posture. As he sits in his office, rap lyrics drift in from the courtyard, where his men are playing a recording of the song "P.I.M.P." by 50 Cent: "We internationally known and locally respected, / And you know you're just a P.I.M.P."

As he drags on a Gauloise and flicks red worry beads in his hands, his seemingly permanent scowl and darting brown eyes reveal little. He is a man of secrets. Not even his own men really know him.

He has met with Maliki's advisors, as well as Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih and Vice President Tariq Hashimi, but Abu Abed complains that progress has been slow.