BAGHDAD — A key pillar of the U.S. strategy to pacify Iraq is in danger of collapsing because the Iraqi government is failing to absorb tens of thousands of former Sunni Muslim insurgents who'd joined U.S.-allied militia groups into the country's security forces.
American officials have credited the militias, known as the Sons of Iraq or Awakening councils, with undercutting support for the group al Qaida in Iraq and bringing peace to large swaths of the country, including Anbar province and parts of Baghdad. Under the program, the United States pays each militia member a stipend of about $300 a month and promised that they'd get jobs with the Iraqi government.
But the Iraqi government, which is led by Shiite Muslims, has brought only a relative handful of the more than 100,000 militia members into the security forces. Now officials are making it clear that they don't intend to include most of the rest.
"We cannot stand them, and we detained many of them recently," said one senior Iraqi commander in Baghdad, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the issue. "Many of them were part of al Qaida despite the fact that many of them are helping us to fight al Qaida."
He said the army was considering setting a Nov. 1 deadline for those militia members who hadn't been absorbed into the security forces or given civilian jobs to give up their weapons. After that, they'd be arrested, he said.
Some militia members say that such a move would force them into open warfare with the government again.
"If they disband us now, I will tell you that history will show we will go back to zero," said Mullah Shahab al Aafi, a former emir, or leader, of insurgents in Diyala province who's the acting commander of 24,000 Sons of Iraq there, 11,000 of whom are on the U.S. payroll. "I will not give up my weapons. I will never give them up, and I will carry my weapon again. If it is useless to talk to the government, I will be forced to carry my weapons and my pistol."
The conflict over the militias underscores how little has changed in Iraq in the past year despite the drop in violence, which American politicians often attribute to the temporary increase of U.S. troops in Iraq that ended in July.
American military officials here have always said that the creation of the Sunni militias was at least as important to the precipitous drop in violence as the presence of 30,000 more U.S. troops, and that incorporating them into the security forces would go a long way toward bringing about the sort of reconciliation needed for long-term stability.
After initially embracing the idea of bringing the militia members into the security forces, however, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki hasn't followed through. A committee that Maliki formed to organize the militias' transition to full-fledged government security troops fell apart and was reconstituted only recently. U.S. officials acknowledge that the hiring of the Sunnis has slowed to a crawl.
U.S. and Iraqi officials agree that the Maliki government never agreed to hire more than 20 percent of the militia members. A Maliki ally said it was unreasonable to expect otherwise.
"All the Americans are doing is paying them just to be quiet," said Haider al Abadi, a leading member of Maliki's Dawa political party and the head of the economic and investment committee in the parliament. The Iraqi government, he said, can't "justify paying monthly salaries to people on the grounds that they are ex-insurgents."
The best that most of them could expect is to be placed in vocational training for trades such as bricklaying and plumbing, along with a slew of other unemployed people.
The government has allocated $150 million for such training. So far this year, the U.S. military has spent $303 million on Sons of Iraq salaries.
American officials declined to be interviewed on the issue without a pledge of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the subject. But privately they expressed concern.
"If they only take a portion of them it's possible they will return to their insurgent ways," one senior intelligence analyst said, acknowledging that most of the men now called the Sons of Iraq had been insurgents, for al Qaida in Iraq and other groups that considered themselves resistance fighters against Americans.
He called the issue the "long-term threat."
"People need to be busy, industrious, just like us," he said. Without jobs, he said, they'll "revert back to how they received money before."
About 15,000 militia members have been given security jobs since the beginning of last year, according to the U.S. military. Another 2,342 have been approved for jobs with the Iraqi police after the Iraqi army opposed absorbing them.
The United States has 103,000 militia members on its payroll.
Abadi, the Maliki ally, was blunt in calling the militias a problem.
"You've created a problem here," he said. "You can't get rid of a program by shoveling it on the Iraqi government shoulders."
Colin Kahl, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a centrist policy institute in Washington, who recently visited Iraq, said the dispute over the militias could set the stage for a return of widespread bloodshed, particularly because the Maliki government seemed intent on thwarting the plan.
He noted that of the militia members slated to join the security forces, only 600 have completed the required training. Of those, most are Shiites.
Kahl, who spoke with senior U.S. officials during his visit to Iraq, said that the Iraqi government was providing jobs to the militia members in "humiliating ways." He said former Iraqi army officers were being absorbed as low-level beat cops, and men who saw themselves as the "slayers of al Qaida" were being asked to become plumbers and bricklayers.
"The last time we humiliated thousands of these guys is back in 2003, and we got the insurgency," Kahl said.
Farouk Abd al Sattar Hassan Mohammed al Obeidi, a deputy Sunni militia commander in the northern Baghdad neighborhood of Adhamiyah, wore a military uniform in an interview with McClatchy last week because he considered his men and himself to be soldiers.
He voiced frustration that his men had applied repeatedly to join the Iraqi Security Forces, to no avail.
"We wish we were part of the army. With deep remorse the government is sectarian," Obeidi said. He described his alliance with the U.S. forces as "the enemy of your enemy is your friend."
"The Sons of Iraq achieved security. Don't they deserve to enter the army?"
Obeidi will never see that happen. On Sunday, a suicide bomber on a bicycle killed him, along with five of his men and nine civilians.
(McClatchy special correspondent Mohammed al Dulaimy contributed to this report.)
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