This month marks the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. For many of the journalists who have covered it, it has been the story of their lifetime, but we’ve nevertheless seen coverage of the war slip off the front pages over the last few months. While there are still plenty of reporters risking their lives doing great work in Iraq, much of the political, social, and economic complexity of today’s war seems to be getting lost in the election-year crush, even as the war continues to be a major issue in the campaign. This series is CJR’s attempt to add a little bit of context to the whole, while digging into stories that don’t always make it into our morning newspapers. This is Part Six.

A slim, slightly weathered-looking man with flecks of gray in his hair, Colonel Ehssan—leader of the local Sons of Iraq group—sits behind his desk, looking unhappy. We had driven from combat outpost Courage this morning to his headquarters, a first floor room in an old building set far back from the road, only a few miles from the base. The room, and the building, is typically Iraqi, meaning typically shabby, with sand-caked windows, peeling yellow paint on the walls, and a few long couches turned toward the colonel’s desk. A space heater sits in the middle of the room, providing whatever heat it can muster.

Ehssan’s group of Sons of Iraq volunteers are part of the 80,000 men the American Army and Marines are currently paying $300 a month each to man checkpoints in their neighborhoods, and they’re a large reason for the recent downturn of violence in Iraq. It’s a dangerous job. Given that there exists quite a bit of distrust between the mostly Shia Iraqi army and the predominately Sunni Sons of Iraq, and that the Baghdad government has mostly kept the Sons of Iraq at arm’s length—it is left to the Americans to pay the volunteers to do the job the Iraqi army and police should be doing. Add to this the increasing number of attacks against Iraqi checkpoints by al Qaeda and Shia insurgent groups, and you begin to see the precarious position these men are in.

With Charlie company’s Stryker vehicles idling out in the courtyard, where I had accidentally kicked a rusted AK-47 clip lying in the dirt on the way in, Captain Helberg and his interpreter settle in for their meeting with the colonel. On the surface, things really aren’t all that bad for Ehssan: his 250 SOIs are all under contract, meaning the American military pays them, and his men have all had their photographs, fingerprints, and retina scans taken by U.S. forces and issued identity cards. This information is entered into a central database, and if any prospective SOI member is already in the system, that means that they had been fingerprinted and photographed doing something that made the Americans unhappy at some point in the past, making them ineligible. On top of this, Ehssan has the backing of the local sheiks, and up to this point has had little interference from the Iraqi Police or Army. Still, there’s the local bogeyman, the Iraqi Army’s Muthana brigade, to contend with.

The colonel assures Helberg that he has no problem with the Iraqi army as an institution, just with the Muthana brigade, which he calls “sectarian.” He’s concerned that the Iraqi army recently shot at one of his checkpoints stationed on a bridge, but Helberg thinks that the only reason they were shot at is because they weren’t wearing the tan Sons of Iraq uniforms they had recently been issued, and they were camped out on a bridge, raising the Iraqi Army’s suspicions. The uniform issue is one that I had seen come up several times before, especially as the volunteers go outside the bounds of their contract and become more “expeditionary” as one officer charitably put it to me, meaning that some of them are heading out on patrols or are trying to hunt down insurgents, when they’re supposed to be nothing more than a stationary guard outfit.

Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.