Iraq to put mainly-Sunni guards on its payroll

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – The Iraqi government announced on Monday it would put 12,000 neighborhood guards on its payroll, a move welcomed by U.S. forces promoting a program of raising mainly Sunni Arab “concerned local citizen” militia.

The order means that armed, predominantly Sunni Arab men will be paid by the Shi’ite-led government, often in communities that were until recently violent flashpoints of an insurgency.

“It’s a very good thing,” said U.S. military spokesman Rear Admiral Greg Smith. “The program was always designed to be a transition or bridge to the permanent security forces.”

The Iraqi government has been seen as lukewarm toward the U.S.-backed militia program, under which 60,000 men, mainly in Sunni Arab areas, have been given ID cards and permitted to carry guns and man checkpoints.

Washington says the program is one of the main tactics that has led to a dramatic reduction in violence across Iraq over the last several months, but many Shi’ites have expressed fears that it has created dangerous, unaccountable militia.

The U.S. military refers to the patrol members as “concerned local citizens” or “CLCs”. The vast majority are Sunni Arabs, although some units are Shi’ite and some are mixed.

Most are now being paid by U.S. forces under contracts signed with local sheikhs, although Smith said a small number are unpaid volunteers.

Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Abdul-Karim Khalaf told Reuters the government would now take over the contracts of 12,000 of them in Baghdad and nearby areas.

“We will distribute special uniforms to them,” he said. “These forces will be under the command of police and army forces in the area and they will be deployed depending on the needs of the area. We will pay them a permanent salary.”

Baghdad security spokesman Brigadier-General Qassim Moussawi put the number at 10,000, and said they would be used by Iraq’s security forces once background checks had been carried out to weed out insurgents and criminals.

Smith said Washington now understands that the Iraqi government aims to take over the entire program by the end of 2008.

Some patrol members may join police academies for training to become regular police officers, but that depends on the rate at which authorities can induct and train them, he said.

Although Washington has long encouraged the government to recruit police officers from the patrols, progress had until now been slow, with so far only 1,800 of the “CLCs” making the transition to the police force, according to Smith.

The units emerged from a model which developed last year in the western Anbar province — once the heartland of the insurgency — and has since spread to Baghdad and beyond.

Sunni Arab sheikhs in Anbar, tired of Sunni Islamist al Qaeda’s indiscriminate killing, began forming young men into tribal police to patrol their own neighborhoods.

U.S. commanders backed the “Awakening” movement as they tried to bring down violence which threatened to tip Iraq into sectarian civil war, training and paying the local units.

Some neighborhood patrol members once belonged to Sunni Arab insurgent groups, but U.S. commanders say all are screened through extensive security databases.

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