In America, neighborhood watch means a sign with an all seeing eye bolted to a pole, and perhaps a slightly higher chance that the residents of the area will call the police over suspicious activity. In Iraq, neighborhood watch means men with AK-47s and medium machine guns manning hasty checkpoints built from cinder blocks and rubbish.
There are three general divisions of Iraqi Security Forces:
The highest level in the Iraqi Army- the soldiers of an IA brigade are drawn from a broad region, and they generally have the best training of Iraqi troops. Some IA divisions are considered to be quite competent- for example, I have heard good things about the 1st and 5th IA, both from American observers, and from Iraqi troops who have served in those units.
Below the level of the IA is the Iraqi Police- policemen are generally drawn from a city and the surrounding rural area. The quality of IPs varies widely by location: in al-Anbar province, most IPs are good men, trustworthy, and decently trained. In other areas, IPs have sometimes proven to be corrupt- or worse, more loyal to their tribal connections than to the government. IPs also have to deal with the dangers inherent in serving the Iraqi government near their hometowns- if they are recognized, their families could be in danger. One can watch the security situation in an area improve in the faces of the IPs-in Ramadi last year, most IPs (when they were present) wore face masks out of fear for their families. Now, they are usually uncovered.
The lowest level of ISF is the Provincial Security Forces. They come from an even smaller slice of countryside than do the IPs, and they attend a short academy that teaches basic skills before putting them into the field. PSF often serve directly alongside IPs, manning vehicle checkpoints and patrolling villages. They lend a direct knowledge of small communities that the IPs for the broader area may lack. Many PSF will prove themselves on the beat with the IPs, and will go on to the IP academies to become policemen themselves.
Below the scope of government security operations is the "Neighborhood Watch". These are volunteers from the local population, often managed by the local sheik and unpaid by the Iraqi government. The appearance of NW is often the portent of change in a historically violent area, because the formation of a local security force (as compared to outside intervention by Coalition Forces or ISF) represents a shift in the attitude of the local population. NW members are normally encouraged to join one branch or another of the ISF- after vetting, many of them eventually do become soldiers or policemen. American troops call them the "Good Bad Guys" or GBG- a title which reflects the checkered past of many fighters. One sheik, one of the first to stand up a militia in the Falluja area, now commands a company of PSF troops. His men began as a militia, became recognized as NW by the local Marine command, and many eventually went to the academy to become PSF. The sheik himself was wounded fighting Americans in the battle for Falluja- he has been working with us now for close to a year. His community near the river is beautiful, acts of violence are extremely rare, and we have never had problems with him or any of his men.
This sort of turnaround is the future of al-Anbar province- convincing former insurgents that America is here to give them help, not to take their land, their oil, their culture, or their religion. Many have come to realize that we will leave once our job is done, and have turned their attention to helping root out the stubborn and the terrorists- the ones who will never stop fighting.