But now, each member of the group is paid $300 a month and issued a badge by US forces stationed nearby that allows him to carry weapons. The Sunni guards have even turned the home of a displaced Shiite family into their makeshift command center in an enclave that is now framed by Shiites on all sides except for an outlet to the airport road, which is heavily guarded by Iraqi forces.
Seven Nissan, once a bustling thoroughfare of stores and businesses, has become the demarcation line between Sunnis and Shiites in Amel. Garbage and debris from numerous car bombs have been removed from the road, but all the shops remain closed. On a visit there last week, not a single pedestrian or car was seen, a chilly reminder of the tenuous peace here.
"What we are doing now was impossible before the cease-fire," says Jabr Salman, a lawyer and Shiite resident of Amel involved in the reconciliation effort, as he drives down Seven Nissan shortly after midday.
"These side streets were death because of the snipers," he adds as he points to the bullet-riddled storefronts on the main road.
Mr. Salman says the one-month-old cease-fire has held up for the most part despite some violations, such as a brief firefight that erupted a few days ago when a Sunni woman returning to inspect her home on the Shiite side was cursed by some angry Shiite neighbors and chased out.
He says that since then, families were told to hold off from returning until a reconciliation council made up of notables from both sides is formed to agree on a mechanism that would secure their safe return and compensate victims' families.
"Ninety percent of the people want peace.… If we have lasting peace here it will spread to other areas – Bayiaa, Saidiyah, and Dora. There will be no place for the virus to breed," says Salman.
The Sunnis want 7,000 families displaced from the Shiite side of Amel to be allowed to return and restitution for eight Sunni mosques that were either looted and destroyed or turned into Shiite houses of worship, according to Sarhan al-Janabi, a Sunni prospective member of the council.