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Can Iraq's new calm hold?

Improved security has boosted optimism, but US commanders want to be assured it is "irreversible."

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Ultimately, when it comes to handing security responsibilities over to Iraq, one of the biggest questions is what will become of the "Sons of Iraq" – the Sunni-dominated groups that form a neighborhood watch program for some of Iraq's most volatile areas and that number more than 103,000 individuals, each paid a daily wage by the US.

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These groups are considered an important factor in the improved security situation in Iraq. But since the program was implemented along with the surge strategy last year, the fear has long been that when the US money runs out, those individuals will return to violence.

As many as 30 percent of the "Sons" are supposed to be professionally trained and folded into the Iraqi security forces. The rest are supposed to be given jobs. But the Iraqis have for months been wary of accepting them into the security forces. The Iraqis' failure to reach political accommodation on this could leave the program adrift and reverse security gains in some areas, experts say.

In northern Iraq, for example, Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling says he hopes that by November, half of the 32,000 "Sons of Iraq" in his sector are either given jobs or accepted into the Iraqi security forces. Of those, he hopes many will become police.

"If we can get 10 percent of them hired as Iraqi policemen, I'll be very happy," said General Hertling in an interview earlier this month. Integrating the rest into the local economy is made difficult by the lack of a rule of law that would govern contracts and other economic transactions, Hertling says.

"I think we're in the very early stages of making that happen," he said. "When that does occur, it will go gangbusters."

But American coffers can't keep footing the bill, defence officials say. Yet Iraqis are not confident the political will needed for an agreement exists.

"I have not seen a coherent plan for those guys, what to do with them," says former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who visited Washington last week. An agreement should have been decided before the program was even begun, Mr. Allawi says.

This week, three suicide bombers, all female, were responsible for separate attacks that killed more than 60 people in Baghdad and the northern city of Kirkuk. Meantime, Iraqi and American forces began an operation against Al Qaeda forces in Diyala province, where top commanders say violence is down but where fighting nonetheless remains intense.

"We've still got a good fight going on," Hertling said. "I don't think the Iraqi people are completely secure. It is not yet a day at the beach for them."

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