BAGHDAD — This week will see an important test of Iraqi reconciliation on Jan. 1, when the Shiite-led central government takes control of Sunni Muslim militias that have supported a U.S.-led security program in volatile Diyala province.
The province is a fault line of sectarian tensions, with Sunni tribal leaders fleeing Diyala because of fears that they’d be targeted by the Baghdad government.
Two leaders of the Sunni Sons of Iraq movement there died in the past month under suspicious or violent circumstances. Bashir Jawrani died in a hospital after he was arrested by Iraqi police, and Sattar al Hadidi was shot to death outside a mosque two weeks ago.
"All Sons of Iraq leaders consider themselves wanted by the government’s security forces," said Hajj Khalid al Luhaibi, a Sons of Iraq leader in Diyala who was arrested and detained for four days last year.
About 95,000 members of the Sons of Iraq nationwide are moving from U.S. to Iraqi leadership in phases over the next few months. More than half of them had already made the transition when the Iraqi government took control of the movement in Baghdad province two months ago.
U.S. and Iraqi leaders consider the switch in Baghdad a success with few glitches and most Sons of Iraq members getting their monthly salaries. About 20 percent of them are expected to be absorbed into Iraqi police and army units, while the rest are due to enter job-training programs. Some classes already are under way.
"Their incorporation into the neighborhood (police) will show that the security forces represent all the components of Iraqi society," said Mohammed Salman, the head of a reconciliation committee that answers to Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.
Diyala presents less of a challenge than Baghdad does in organizing paychecks and education because the province’s 8,000 Sons of Iraq members are far fewer than the capital city’s.
Diyala, however, poses more significant risks in assuring Sons of Iraq leaders that they'll have a role in Iraq’s government and its future. Many in the province interpreted an August Iraqi military operation there called "Glad Tidings" as an assault on Sunni tribes.
Some Sons of Iraq leaders were arrested at that time, Luhaibi said, and others have been apprehended because of their past ties to insurgent cells that attacked U.S. and Iraqi forces in 2006 and 2007.
They broke from groups such as al Qaida in Iraq and aligned with the U.S. last year, one of the changes that contributed to a dramatic drop in violence in 2008. They fear that the Iraqi government will press charges against them for crimes committed before they reconciled with the U.S. military and began fighting Sunni insurgents.
U.S. officials say that Iraq should dismiss efforts to prosecute Sons of Iraq members for past crimes to keep the Sunni leaders working with the government.
"You have to look past what the Sons of Iraq did in the old time. Now this is about reconciliation," said Army Lt. Col. Jeffrey Kulmayer, who's overseeing the transition of the Sons of Iraq to government control.
He's pressed the Iraqi government to free Sons of Iraq members who've been arrested in Diyala on the grounds that the crimes that led to their detentions took place before the Awakening.
"Reconciliation is something in between amnesty and justice," Kulmayer said. "You can’t get both. The government is still wrestling with that. They’re not going to give amnesty for all the Sons of Iraq."
Iraqi officials, however, are reluctant to absolve their former enemies. The official line from Baghdad is that Sons of Iraq members won't be targeted by the government, but that courts will investigate allegations made by individuals, Salman said. Those courts could issue warrants that lead to the arrests of Sons of Iraq members.
"Those who had bloodshed or killed people, they will be punished for their crimes, and of course anyone who committed a crime will be arrested, regardless of whether they are Sons of Iraq," said Lt. Brahim Ahmed, who oversees a checkpoint in the Diyala city of Baqubah. Some Sons of Iraq members work with him.
Despite the reservations expressed by Luhaibi and other Diyala Sons of Iraq leaders, most of the militia’s members have signed up to start working for the Iraqi government. As of Saturday, more than 80 percent of the province’s Sons of Iraq members were in line to start getting paid by Iraq.
"We are waiting for (the government’s) promises just to join for police or army, and I have this sense that we’ll be in one of them," said Abbas Hussein, a Sons of Iraq member in Baqubah.
In Baghdad, former Sons of Iraq members said that could take longer than planned. Abu Leila, a Sons of Iraqi leader in Baghdad’s Adhamiyah neighborhood, said the cash is coming from the Iraqi government, but the vocational education courses are taking too long to develop.
"They promised us courses for those who wish to go into professions, but nothing has happened," he said.
Ashton reports for the Modesto (Calif.) Bee. McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Sahar Issa in Baghdad and a correspondent in Diyala who doesn't wish to be named because of security concerns contributed to this report.
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