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.

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.

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.

But US officers are nervous that the government will not keep its word when the first salaries are due early November. Some US units have reportedly set aside cash to pay the SOI for a few months, just in case. Many plan to be on hand as Iraqi officials pay the $300 monthly salaries – a bill that comes to more than $16 million for Baghdad.

It's money well spent, US commanders argue, if it limits suicide bombs and other insurgent attacks.

"The commitment the Coalition and government of Iraq has made to the Sons of Iraq is one that we have to honor," says Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq. "It's part of the reason the security situation is where it is today."

That conclusion is echoed in a Pentagon report released Tuesday, which notes a 77 percent drop of violence compared with last year and describes careful handling of the SOI as "critical to providing stable security."

"While security has improved dramatically, the fundamental character of the conflict in Iraq remains unchanged – a communal struggle for power and resources," the Pentagon said in the quarterly report to Congress. Progress remains "fragile, reversible, and uneven."

To reassure the SOI, US officials have extracted promises from the Iraqi government not to arrest members without a warrant nor to issue warrants for crimes that may have occurred more than six months ago.

"We want 100 percent to join the security forces, like the [Kurdish] peshmerga and [Shiite] militias backed by political parties," says Mr. Jamal, the SOI leader. "We are the third power in Iraq after the Americans and Iraqi troops and police. Sahwa created security, and if anything hurts Iraq, we will raise weapons against it."

SOI fighters have often violent histories as insurgents that were overlooked by US forces desperate to bring them on board. The armed groups arose from a 2006 movement of Sunni sheikhs in Anbar Province who turned against the violent tactics of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Top government officials say privately they recognize the need to continue paying the SOI, or risk reinvigorated conflict, even if the guards can't be integrated into the security forces and remain unemployed.

Jamal finds that promise hard to believe.

"The sectarian [Shiite] government is afraid of giving any source of power to the Sunnis," he says. "The Americans were very honest with the Sons of Iraq and help us fight Al Qaeda. They do their real duty and we thank them, but they are in too much of a hurry to transfer the Sahwa file to the government."

Awadh al-Taiee in Baghdad contributed reporting.

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