Iraqi government reassures the Awakening, but fighters are wary

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 11, 2008 

BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government will not turn its back on the men who paid in blood for the country's fragile peace, said the officials on stage in the ballroom at Baghdad's al-Rasheed Hotel, referring to U.S.-paid Sunni militias. But the Awakening leaders listened warily. "I don't trust a word they said," said one, afterward.

The Shiite-led Iraqi government is due to take control of the 99,000-strong militias Oct. 1, absorbing 20,000 into the police and army and providing jobs, schooling or vocational training for the rest.

For almost two years the Pentagon paid men in the mainly Sunni group at least $300 a month each to fight al Qaida and other Sunni extremist groups. They were key in breaking the terrorist group's stranglehold in parts of Anbar and Diyala provinces and still face kidnappings, executions and suicide bombings there.

But the recent alliance was not entirely comfortable at all times for any of the parties involved. Many of the rank and file from the U.S. military and Iraqi security forces were at first reluctant to fight alongside men who, before they were put on payroll, sometimes tried to kill them. Last month, U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus said the Iraqi government had been deliberately slow bringing them into the security forces here.

On the other side, Awakening fighters fear prosecution for past crimes, and question whether the government will make good on its promises.

There have been many promises, and on Thursday the officials reiterated them.

"The government has ordered that monthly salaries be paid until we can put (Awakening members) into security forces or the ministries," said Gen. Abud Ganbar, the Baghdad operations commander. "Payments will continue until they find jobs."

All fighters who fought on the U.S. payroll and register with the government office for disarmament and merging of militias will be paid, said that office's head, Khaleem al Rubaiee.

Awakening men cannot be immune from prosecution, said Mohammed Salman, of the national reconciliation committee, but the government will not permit vendettas against them inside or outside the courts. "The coming days will prove the extent of our commitment," he said.

The Awakening leaders were not optimistic.

"The leaders of the Awakening never expected the Americans to leave them in such a time," said Firas Qaasim Khalef, commander of 475 men in the al Amil neighborhood of western Baghdad.

"I see this will be a big mistake," said Naji Rahal, commander of 400 men in Taji. Over the years, 14 of his men have been killed, 23 injured, and six had their homes destroyed. Some of his men now wear police uniforms, but they have not been put on permanent staff, and he distrusted the leadership.

"It is breached," he said. "I saw an al Qaida member, a killer, who is a colonel in the (police) now. "If a report is written, who would the government listen to, this colonel or me?"

Said Jassim, who commands 5,000 men in Tarmiyah, said two of his sons had been killed fighting; a third lost his leg just two weeks ago. His men had sacrificed their lives, he said, and now their weapons were being confiscated.

"If they are left in the street, they will be targets for al Qaida."

He warned of another problem: "There are areas even the state cannot secure," he said. "No one can secure them but the tribal men."

The officials on stage did not address that point directly, but made it clear that the war of the Awakening will end one day, whether they want it to or not.

"We do not have three forces," said Gen. Ali Ghaidan, commander of Iraqi ground troops. "We have police and army."

(Spangler reports for The Miami Herald. Dulaimy is a McClatchy Special Correspondent in Baghdad)

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