BAGHDAD, Iraq—Nine Iraqi militias, representing more than 100,000 fighters but not the forces of rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, have agreed to lay down their arms as part of a rewards and retraining program announced Monday.
While the program faces significant logistical and other hurdles, disbanding the militias would be a huge step forward in bringing order to Iraq's often chaotic security situation and could help reinforce Iraq's political unity under the transitional government set to take control on June 30.
Prime Minister-designate Iyad Allawi said that most paramilitary fighters would be absorbed into Iraq's new armed forces, while others would be retrained for noncombat roles or retire and receive a pension.
"Those who choose to return to civilian life will receive valuable job training and other benefits," Allawi said in a written statement. "By doing this, we reward their heroism and sacrifice, while making Iraq stronger and eliminating armed forces outside of government control."
Asked how he could be sure that the militiamen will be loyal to their new Iraqi security commanders, and not their former militia, Allawi deferred to the new Iraqi minister of the interior, Falah al Nakib.
"I think ... they would like to be in the Iraqi army, probably many of them, they would like to return to their civilian lives," al Nakib said. "So I have no doubt actually about that. It is a matter of confidence. We are working on it."
Iraq is swarming with militiamen attached to religious sects, ethnic groups and political parties that rely on them for basic protection, and they have been reluctant to disband. The U.S.-led coalition and the now-defunct Iraqi Governing Council have announced similar programs in the past, but private guns can still be seen manning checkpoints or guarding offices across the country.
It's not clear how militiamen who choose to join the new Iraqi army will do so. The Lebanese Armed Forces were organized along religious lines, but they broke apart when the country's civil war began.
"The militias are a lot of the problem in Iraq," said Walid al Shahib Hilli, a spokesman for the al Da'waa Party, one of Iraq's main Islamic organizations. "They erupt in a way that is hard to control."
A senior coalition official said $200 million, to be administered by Iraq's Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, had been set aside for paying pensions to veterans or to provide jobs, training and education to former fighters. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said some 60,000 former militiamen will have entered the program by July 1.
The agreement Monday covers all of Iraq's largest private armies, including the Kurdish peshmerga and the main Shiite Muslim militia, the Badr Organization. Some groups, such as Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, already have begun dissolving their armies.
Haidar Musawi, a spokesman for Chalabi, said the INC supports the move, but is waiting for more details on how the disbanding will occur and what mechanisms will ensure the armies don't regroup.
"All the armed forces we used to have fought the former regime for years, and the new regime can rely on them because they support the new reality in Iraq," Musawi said. "(But) it will be a critical balance between wanting to apply this decision and giving assurance to the public that disbanding the militias will not harm their way of life."
The two main Kurdish political parties—the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party—revere the peshmerga for protecting their northern semi-autonomous region under Saddam Hussein's regime. Peshmerga veterans have said they would resist calls for their dissolution.
The notable exception to Monday's agreement is al-Sadr's Mahdi Army forces, which continue to fight U.S. troops in an uprising that began two months ago and has extended from southern holy cities to Sadr City, a largely Shiite slum in Baghdad. Last week, the coalition announced a fragile truce with militiamen.
Redha Jawad Taki, a spokesman for the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which controls the Badr Brigade, condemned the Mahdi Army for unnecessarily bringing violence and collateral damage into a holy city.
"Some Iraqi people want to resist the American Army, but what happened in Najaf was not a resistance," he said, suggesting al-Sadr had political motives that went beyond fighting the United States.
Sheik Ahmed Sheybani, a spokesman for al-Sadr in Najaf, said the Mahdi Army isn't a militia, but people who "get out and resist" the occupation of their country. If Iraq is truly sovereign after the June 30 handover of power, he said, then the Mahdi Army—estimated at 10,000 men—will probably transform into a political movement.
"If the occupation ends, the Mahdi Army will end," Sheybani said. "If the new government is timid and the Americans are still in charge, then the Mahdi Army will stay."
While al-Sadr agreed to a truce in the southern cities of Najaf and Kufa, there were reports Monday that the militia members were still in place, just without their weapons.
On Sunday in Sadr City, Mahdi members blew up a police station. According to witnesses, militia members told Iraqi police they had a few minutes to leave a station recently evacuated by American troops.
Majed al Fortuzi, the manager of al-Sadr's office in Baghdad's Sadr City, said Monday that the Mahdi troops wouldn't leave as long as U.S. troops are in Iraq.
"I reject the idea of a cease-fire with the Americans," he said. "I cannot accept being on the same street as the Americans ... and if Muqtada asked us to die for him, we would."
Allawi, however, made it clear that private armies operating after the agreement would face prosecution.
"As of now, all armed forces outside of state control, as provided by this order, are illegal," according to Allawi's statement. "Those that have chosen violence and lawlessness over transition and reintegration will be dealt with harshly."
(Lasseter reports for The Miami Herald.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.