BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Sunni Arab neighborhood patrols have been vital to cutting violence in Iraq. But how the Shi’ite-led government handles their future could foster sectarian reconciliation or start a new round of bloodshed.
The U.S. military will begin handing control of the units to the government from October 1, when Baghdad will pay 54,000 guards operating in and around the Iraqi capital.
But some government officials eye the unofficial forces, which include many former Sunni Arab insurgents and total around 100,000 men across the country, with suspicion.
The government has set limits on how many of them can be incorporated into the security forces.
Called Awakening Councils or Sahwas in Arabic, the units began turning against Sunni al Qaeda in late 2006. Paid by the U.S. military, they patrol neighborhoods and man checkpoints.
The government has promised to incorporate 20 percent of the units into the security forces and give the rest civilian jobs or training. That is not good enough, some Sunni leaders say.
“Sahwas sacrificed their lives to impose security and expel armed groups, and they succeeded. If this is not respected, no one knows what will happen,” said Aws Mohammed, an Awakening group leader in Baghdad’s Adhamiya district.
Senior Sunni lawmaker Salim al-Jubouri asked why the government had imposed a percentage.
“Anyone who is capable should be allowed to join the security forces,” he said.
Both the U.S. military, which has paid guards about $300 a month, and Sunni tribal leaders say al Qaeda’s most fertile recruiting grounds are among Iraq’s many jobless men.
“When you take (a man’s) weapon and do not give him a job, then he will become a target. In this case no one can anticipate what this man’s reaction will be,” Mohammed said.
A senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Awakening integration would be a test of whether the government could create inclusive institutions or would remain hostage to sectarian interests.
But he also expressed distaste for some members of the predominantly Sunni Arab Awakening movement, an aversion shared by some other officials.
“There is no doubt sahwas have had a lot to do with the security gains in Iraq but some of these guys are unsavory characters. I would not invite them to my home for dinner. But I have to talk to my enemies,” he said.
Ali al-Dabbagh, Iraq’s government spokesman, praised the Awakening groups in a recent television interview, adding the state would “not let them down”.
But he said members would be interviewed to weed out those who conducted “killings and suspicious actions” before jobs could be awarded. Given that many Awakening group members are former insurgents, screening is likely to be hotly disputed.
“The doors to the army and the security forces are not open to all regardless of number,” said senior Shi’ite lawmaker Ali al-Adeeb, who is close to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
“There is a limited number we can take. If they are approved, they may become a member of security forces, but otherwise no, because a criminal cannot defend the freedom of others and their lives.”
The United States will closely watch the transition of the Awakening program, a U.S. embassy official said. It was confident Iraq recognized the achievements of men the U.S. military calls “Sons of Iraq”.
“Maliki has personally committed to me he will look after the Sons of Iraq,” the U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, was quoted as saying in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“They know if they don’t look after the SOIs they could have an insurrection on their hands.”