BAGHDAD — The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, said Thursday that the Iraqi government had been purposefully slow in absorbing into its security forces tens of thousands of mostly former Sunni insurgents who'd joined U.S.-financed militias.
When asked if the U.S.-backed Iraqi government had created stumbling blocks to absorb the now roughly 99,000 men known as the Sons of Iraq or Awakening councils, Petraeus confirmed that it had.
"That has certainly been the case," he said in an interview with McClatchy.
But last week, Petraeus said, Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III received a commitment from Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki that he would uphold the government commitment to take on 20 percent of the men for the Iraqi Security Forces and the rest would go into other government jobs and vocational training.
Petraeus said the transfer had been too slow.
"We're not going to walk away from them, and as I said, Prime Minister Maliki committed to taking care of them," he said. "I do think it is somewhat understandable that the government struggles to hire former insurgents for its security forces or for its ministerial positions...But this is how you end these kinds of conflicts. That's why they call it reconciliation. It's not done with one's friends, it's done with former enemies."
Only time will tell if the renewed commitment would translate into actions on the ground, he said.
"We'll see what happens now that there is unequivocal direction and commitment from the prime minister," he said. "We'll have to see if this prime ministerial commitment is translated into the kind of action that we've wanted to see for a number of months."
The U.S. military pays an average of $25 million a month to members of the Sons of Iraq or Awakening councils. Earlier this week, a senior intelligence analyst told McClatchy that if they did not become part of the current government's security forces or take on other government jobs they could become a "long-term threat" to Iraq if they turn back to their insurgent ways.
Petraeus said that some of the dawdling by the Iraqi government could be attributed to the changeover of Maliki's reconciliation committee, which slowed to a halt earlier this year when the leadership was changed.
Shiite officials have said that they did not want to be burdened with the American program and a security official in the Ministry of Defense told McClatchy that if the militia members were not absorbed later this year there were plans to detain the men, who the U.S. military consider a major factor in calming violence in the country.
Detentions of members of the Sons of Iraq have already begun in parts of Iraq and members of the groups worry that, when the American military leaves, the government will not uphold their agreement. Petraeus said that some militants had infiltrated the councils but that security forces did not hesitate to go after them.
"They have made an enormous contribution, or a very significant contribution, to improved security," he said.