Surge test: Will Iraq's government back Sunni militias?

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 30, 2008 

WORLD NEWS USIRAQ-SUNNIS 3 MCT

Khaled Jamal Qaisi, the head of the Sons of Iraq in the once violent neighborhood of Fadl in Baghdad, talks with a leading Shiite member of the Sons of Iraq in the neighboring district of Abu Saifan on September 29, 2008.

LEILA FADEL — Leila Fadel / MCT

BAGHDAD — The scars left by the violence that ravaged the Fadl district of central Baghdad are everywhere in this former Sunni Muslim insurgent bastion. The balconies are collapsed, and the building columns, decimated by gunfire, look like chewed apple cores. Garbage is strewn throughout the streets, and there's little or no electricity.

There is, however, a measure of security for the first time in years, and the U.S.-backed Sunni militia that was stood up here, known as the Sons of Iraq or Awakening Councils, say it's the reason for the change.

"Even the friendly (U.S.) troops could not liberate this area," said Khaled Jamal al Qaisi, a colonel in Saddam Hussein's army and the commander of the Sunni militia in Fadl, as he proudly walked the streets of his neighborhood.

Al Qaisi and the other roughly 100,000 men of the mostly Sunni paramilitary groups — which were formed by U.S. troops after tribal sheikhs in Anbar province turned against al Qaida in Iraq and quieted a province once thought lost to insurgents — are now in a delicate balance.

The security gains of the past year — violence in Baghdad is down by 85 percent — are far from secure, although American politicians claim that President Bush's surge of additional U.S. troops has put the United States on a path to victory in Iraq. Unemployment in Sunni areas remains high, basic services are still poor, distrust of the United States and the Shiite-led Iraqi government is widespread and fears of Shiite militias persist.

On Wednesday, al Qaisi and 54,419 other men in Baghdad province will transition to Iraqi government control. That's more than half of the Sons of Iraq (SOI) who're now being paid by the U.S. military to protect neighborhoods — and in some cases not to shoot at American troops.

In its quarterly report on the security situation in Iraq, released Tuesday, the U.S. military found that integrating the Sons of Iraq is one of that nation's biggest security obstacles. It called the slow transition "a concern" and said, " . . . the integration and employment of SOI remains a significant challenge."

The Sons of Iraq worry that putting them under the control of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is a ploy to detain and disband them. Already, Sons of Iraq leaders in the northern province of Diyala are hiding in neighboring Syria. In Baghdad, only 3,400 Sons of Iraq have transitioned into the security forces, and barely any have entered the Iraqi army or national police.

Al Qaisi swears that he won't report to the Iraqi Army, despite the fact that he and his men are among the 50,000 or so Sunni militiamen who gave their names to the Iraqi government for registration.

A man with a gruff face and a sharp tongue, al Qaisi said he speaks for a series of armed groups and for some 30,000 men across the country who once fought American troops and the Iraqi government. He's an ally of the U.S. military now, but if he's betrayed he'll become an enemy of the Americans again, he said.

"We would not like to see them fighting the Sons of Iraq again," he said, sitting next to the head of the Sons of Iraq from a neighboring Shiite area. The two groups brought down the concrete wall between their neighborhoods last week in a ceremony to mark the end of the tit-for-tat killings of Shiites and Sunnis that used to happen here.

"I hope the Iraqi government does not commit a mistake against us," he warned.

"Because we fight militias and terrorists, the Sons of Iraq must go," he said. "They (the Iraqi government) worry that we will be the ones who will be elected in the parliament. We are the ones loved in the neighborhoods."

The U.S. government has put backstops in place, said Army Lt. Col. Jeffrey Kulmayer, who's responsible for the program. Currently the plan is to transition the men on Oct. 1, and the Iraqi government has promised to pay their salaries, currently about $300 a month apiece, until they find "meaningful employment."

If the Maliki government doesn't pay the mostly Sunni Arab men, the United States is prepared to continue paying the men until the Iraqi government does, Kulmayer said. U.S. officials also have asked the Maliki government not to act on arrest warrants that are more than six months old.

"We have expressed to (Iraqi) officials that, as a part of reconciliation, they should not detain SOI for alleged crimes that occurred prior to them being SOI," Kulmayer said. "They understand what is at stake. We are in agreement that the GOI (Government of Iraq) will detain SOI only in accordance with Iraqi law and with a current warrant, issued within the previous six months, by a competent Iraqi judicial official."

This is the test of reconciliation, Kulmayer said.

"We're not going to abandon them," he said. "It's not about just taking these men and giving them work, it's about taking a population that was considered separate and then reintegrating them and offering them hope and a future and a part of the new Iraq. That's why we think it's so important that the right percentage, this 20 to 30 percent, gets into the Iraqi security forces."

For the transition to work and violence to remain at bay, however, Maliki, who's been pushing for a faster withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities and demanded the early transition of the Sons of Iraq, must make concessions, and so must the Sunni men being absorbed into the security forces.

The United States must maintain a combat troop presence for a time as trust is built between the Shiite-led government and the newly absorbed Sunnis.

Maliki would like to transition the Sons of Iraq into the Iraqi government and by many accounts eliminate them, but it's important that the United States make sure that doesn't happen, said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"Critical to the success of the surge is that the Sunnis at large remain in cease-fire, and central to their remaining in cease-fire is that they have security they can trust," he said. "With respect to the U.S. government in Iraq, a sizable presence is absolutely essential for a couple years to prevent a return to warfare.

"Maliki's ideal preference and the Sons of Iraq ideal preference are obviously incompatible with each other; neither party is going to get exactly what they want here without a return to warfare, and what is going to have to happen if there is not a return to warfare is compromise."

For now, Khaled al Qaisi will wait and see whether transition means betrayal. He still calls himself a member of the "national resistance." There's no trust between him and the government, he said.

"We have an agreement with the Americans, not the government of Iraq," he said.

(Nancy A. Youssef contributed from Washington.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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