HOMS, Syria (Reuters) - When rifle-toting members of Syria's shabbiha pro-government paramilitary gangs strut into a shop, cowed residents of Homs know to clear out of their way.
Accused of atrocities that include the massacre last month of scores of women and children - many of whose throats were slit and heads bashed in - the militiamen cut to the front of the queue as shoppers shrink back and staff rush to serve them.
In their informal uniform of camouflage trousers and white sneakers, the young recruits swan down the streets of the Alawite neighborhoods, set up checkpoints at a whim and stop traffic to question drivers.
"We don't know when they'll show up and when they'll disappear," whispered Abu Tamam, from the Alawite neighborhood of Zahra where hundreds of men have joined shabbiha gangs. "Some of their leaders are the biggest thugs in the neighborhood. Now they're supposed to be our saviors."
Lawless groups of shabbiha now style themselves as above the control of the very security forces that created them to support the brutal crackdown on the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad that began in March 2011.
Homs is filled with men like short, fat, balding 40-year-old Louay. He hardly looks like a gang leader. But he is not afraid of force, and he claims he takes orders from no one - not even the government he is fighting to protect.
"If the government can't end this farce, we will. I have boys who would eat rocks," he growls. "Enough is enough. The army has been at it for a year and can't put a stop to this."
Opponents of the government say shabbiha are a convenient cat's paw manipulated by the secret intelligence apparatus of the Assad police state, ready to do the dirty work with no written orders so the state can deny responsibility.
Sixteen months into a revolt that activists say has claimed at least 13,000 lives, the balance of power between the military and the vigilante gangs is shifting. Shabbiha now operate on their own, and sometimes even in contempt of the army.
"Bashar will stay in power as long as I have breath in my body, but his army leaders are rats," Louay says. "My guys and I work for ourselves, without orders from anybody."
But despite their boasts of independence from the army, the shabbiha's relationship with internal security and intelligence branches has become so close that some members said they have called on security forces to back up raids.
Like most shabbiha men, Louay is from Assad's own minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam. Alawite elites have dominated Syria for four decades under Assad and his father.
Hardline Alawite loyalists insist they are not fighting a popular uprising, but battling for survival against Syria's majority Sunni Muslim population that leads the revolt.
The victims of army raids on rebellious Sunni areas say assaults usually start with army shelling but end with up-close killing by shabbiha guns and knives.
Some come just to loot. Others shoot and stab those who have not fled the army barrage. Video records of the aftermath show brutal scenes of bloody bodies, children with smashed skulls.
Military officers insist their relationship with shabbiha is a forced partnership developed by Syria's security apparatus.
"There is clear, mutual hatred between the soldiers and shabbiha," said one army officer, who asked to remain anonymous.
"All those things you see in the media have nothing to do with us - the random killings, stealing. We have cases of Homs massacres and we're still looking for the culprits. Because inside their neighborhoods, the shabbiha are in charge."
NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH GONE WRONG
The army theoretically controls Alawite areas in Homs. It has troops and heavy artillery on most street corners. But it is the shabbiha that residents fear.
The term comes from the Arabic word for "ghost," and was also the nickname of gangs close to security forces in the 1980s, who ran smuggling and car theft rackets during the rule of Bashar's father, Hafez al-Assad.
But the roots of Syria's new shabbiha have little to do with their mafia-style predecessors. The gangs spawned by the war are the ugly metamorphosis of "neighborhood watch groups" organized by local security forces as the Syrian revolt grew.
"The government's biggest mistake was the community watch groups," said another army officer who also requested anonymity. "They created the shabbiha, and now they are a force above the law. How can you trust them? If the situation continues like this, they will become fully-fledged militias," he said.
For most of the hundreds of young men who joined the ranks of the shabbiha, membership is a badge of pride and a way to defend a minority community they believe is under threat.
Young recruits like 20-year-old Samir are called "chicks". He shifts the Kalashnikov over his scrawny shoulders as he walks the streets. His parents kicked him out of the house when he joined the shabbiha.
"There are even younger ones, there's a 16-year-old who helps us with some attacks," he said. "We're not ignorant you know, I'm a first year law student. But right now, our country is more important and those rebels are criminals. What is happening is a war against Alawites and we will not be silent."
THUG TURNED HERO
Army sources say local security branches have given licenses to many men in places like Homs to carry weapons, officially for self-defense, due to deteriorating conditions in Syria.
Shabbiha leaders now have a constant supply of income from raiding and looting rebellious areas and can easily buy more weapons and ammunition.
In Hom's Zahra neighborhood, Murad holds court with his group of 30 men cradling rifles. A hulking former prison inmate, he says he now works closely with the security forces and has spies planted among the rebels.
Crowds of young men gather at his empty office filled with sagging chairs, listening to him tell stories about recent battles while he puffs Marlboros and sips on whiskey - both luxury items in a city ripped apart by clashes and shelling.
"The other night I got some news from my group that fighters we're going to attack...I called military intelligence and told them to send backup. They sent us 15 guys ready to fight. I collected our guys, and organized them to go out at about 10 p.m. I sent our hawk to the highest building, and the place was on a platter for him" he said, referring to his team's sniper.
"Our group inside was telling us when things would happen. We waited until 4 am. Then things lit up. The hawk started firing - if he saw a cat, he shot it."
As he tells his story, the men roar with laughter. But he bristles at any questioning of his motives.
"It's our duty to protect the neighborhood," he said. "Besides, we are working within the law."
(Reporting for Reuters by an independent correspondent; Writing by Erika Solomon; Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Peter Graff)