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An uncertain future for the Sons of Iraq

Iraq's Shiite-led government has begun taking control of the anti-insurgent Sunni fighters who have helped improve security across the country.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 3, 2008



Baghdad

Fresh concern is washing over Iraq of a new wave of insurgent violence as the bands of mainly Sunni Muslim Iraqis trained, armed, and paid by the US military to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq are now coming under the control of a skeptical Shiite-led government.

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While the group called the Sons of Iraq (SOI) has been critically important in improving security, the US military and many leaders within the SOI worry that their foot soldiers – many of them ex-insurgents – will simply return to their old ways if they are not paid or brought into Iraq's official security forces.

"If the government doesn't accept them, most will join [insurgent] groups, and they will restart their activities stronger than before," says Khalid Jamal, an SOI leader in Baghdad. "That will make Iraq return to zero."

Keeping the insurgency and sectarian killing at bay is crucial in Iraq's fragile security, where the SOI (known also as the Awakening, or Sahwa in Arabic) are but one reason for the sharp fall in violence. Official figures point to 440 Iraqis killed in September, down from peaks of more than 3,000 a month in 2006.

A spike in attacks in recent days coincides with the end of Ramadan. Two suicide bombs struck Shiite mosques early Thursday, killing at least 24 of the 30 Iraqis who died in attacks.

Recent days have also witnessed an increase in the number of bodies being found in Baghdad, a dozen of which were killed execution-style.

Other pillars of improved security are a standing down of the Mahdi Army militia of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr – widely seen as a result of Iranian pressure on the Shiite firebrand – and the surge of US forces last year that helped enable the ever-growing Iraqi security forces to take control.

The government "affirms its commitment to integrate the members into public life so that they take part in building Iraq," spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a statement Wednesday, the day US forces nominally handed over control of the 54,000 Sunni fighters in the Baghdad region. Others of the 98,000 Sunnis now on the US payroll, are to gradually come under Iraqi control.

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