Surge Test: Will Iraq's Government Back Sunni Militias?

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McClatchy Newspapers

Surge Test: Will Iraq's Government Back Sunni Militias?

by
Leila Fadel

Khaled Jamal Qaisi, the head of the Sons of Iraq in the once violent neighborhood of Fadl in Baghdad, talks with a leading Shiite member of the Sons of Iraq in the neighboring district of Abu Saifan on September 29, 2008. (Leila Fadel / MCT)

BAGHDAD - The scars left by the violence that ravaged the Fadl
district of central Baghdad are everywhere in this former Sunni Muslim
insurgent bastion. The balconies are collapsed, and the building
columns, decimated by gunfire, look like chewed apple cores. Garbage is
strewn throughout the streets, and there's little or no electricity.

There is, however, a measure of security for the first time in years,
and the U.S.-backed Sunni militia that was stood up here, known as the
Sons of Iraq or Awakening Councils, say it's the reason for the change.

"Even
the friendly (U.S.) troops could not liberate this area," said Khaled
Jamal al Qaisi, a colonel in Saddam Hussein's army and the commander of
the Sunni militia in Fadl, as he proudly walked the streets of his
neighborhood.

Al
Qaisi and the other roughly 100,000 men of the mostly Sunni
paramilitary groups - which were formed by U.S. troops after tribal
sheikhs in Anbar province turned against al Qaida in Iraq and quieted a
province once thought lost to insurgents - are now in a delicate
balance.

The security gains of the past year - violence in
Baghdad is down by 85 percent - are far from secure, although American
politicians claim that President Bush's surge of additional U.S. troops
has put the United States on a path to victory in Iraq. Unemployment in
Sunni areas remains high, basic services are still poor, distrust of
the United States and the Shiite-led Iraqi government is widespread and
fears of Shiite militias persist.

On Wednesday, al Qaisi and
54,419 other men in Baghdad province will transition to Iraqi
government control. That's more than half of the Sons of Iraq (SOI)
who're now being paid by the U.S. military to protect neighborhoods -
and in some cases not to shoot at American troops.

In its
quarterly report on the security situation in Iraq, released Tuesday,
the U.S. military found that integrating the Sons of Iraq is one of
that nation's biggest security obstacles. It called the slow transition
"a concern" and said, " . . . the integration and employment of SOI
remains a significant challenge."

The Sons of Iraq worry that
putting them under the control of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki
is a ploy to detain and disband them. Already, Sons of Iraq leaders in
the northern province of Diyala are hiding in neighboring Syria. In
Baghdad, only 3,400 Sons of Iraq have transitioned into the security
forces, and barely any have entered the Iraqi army or national police.

Al
Qaisi swears that he won't report to the Iraqi Army, despite the fact
that he and his men are among the 50,000 or so Sunni militiamen who
gave their names to the Iraqi government for registration.

A man
with a gruff face and a sharp tongue, al Qaisi said he speaks for a
series of armed groups and for some 30,000 men across the country who
once fought American troops and the Iraqi government. He's an ally of
the U.S. military now, but if he's betrayed he'll become an enemy of
the Americans again, he said.

"We would not like to see them
fighting the Sons of Iraq again," he said, sitting next to the head of
the Sons of Iraq from a neighboring Shiite area. The two groups brought
down the concrete wall between their neighborhoods last week in a
ceremony to mark the end of the tit-for-tat killings of Shiites and
Sunnis that used to happen here.

"I hope the Iraqi government does not commit a mistake against us," he warned.

"Because
we fight militias and terrorists, the Sons of Iraq must go," he said.
"They (the Iraqi government) worry that we will be the ones who will be
elected in the parliament. We are the ones loved in the neighborhoods."

The
U.S. government has put backstops in place, said Army Lt. Col. Jeffrey
Kulmayer, who's responsible for the program. Currently the plan is to
transition the men on Oct. 1, and the Iraqi government has promised to
pay their salaries, currently about $300 a month apiece, until they
find "meaningful employment."

If the Maliki government doesn't
pay the mostly Sunni Arab men, the United States is prepared to
continue paying the men until the Iraqi government does, Kulmayer said.
U.S. officials also have asked the Maliki government not to act on
arrest warrants that are more than six months old.

"We have
expressed to (Iraqi) officials that, as a part of reconciliation, they
should not detain SOI for alleged crimes that occurred prior to them
being SOI," Kulmayer said. "They understand what is at stake. We are in
agreement that the GOI (Government of Iraq) will detain SOI only in
accordance with Iraqi law and with a current warrant, issued within the
previous six months, by a competent Iraqi judicial official."

This is the test of reconciliation, Kulmayer said.

"We're
not going to abandon them," he said. "It's not about just taking these
men and giving them work, it's about taking a population that was
considered separate and then reintegrating them and offering them hope
and a future and a part of the new Iraq. That's why we think it's so
important that the right percentage, this 20 to 30 percent, gets into
the Iraqi security forces."

For the transition to work and
violence to remain at bay, however, Maliki, who's been pushing for a
faster withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities and demanded the
early transition of the Sons of Iraq, must make concessions, and so
must the Sunni men being absorbed into the security forces.

The
United States must maintain a combat troop presence for a time as trust
is built between the Shiite-led government and the newly absorbed
Sunnis.

Maliki would like to transition the Sons of Iraq into the
Iraqi government and by many accounts eliminate them, but it's
important that the United States make sure that doesn't happen, said
Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"Critical
to the success of the surge is that the Sunnis at large remain in
cease-fire, and central to their remaining in cease-fire is that they
have security they can trust," he said. "With respect to the U.S.
government in Iraq, a sizable presence is absolutely essential for a
couple years to prevent a return to warfare.

"Maliki's ideal
preference and the Sons of Iraq ideal preference are obviously
incompatible with each other; neither party is going to get exactly
what they want here without a return to warfare, and what is going to
have to happen if there is not a return to warfare is compromise."

For
now, Khaled al Qaisi will wait and see whether transition means
betrayal. He still calls himself a member of the "national resistance."
There's no trust between him and the government, he said.

"We have an agreement with the Americans, not the government of Iraq," he said.

(Nancy A. Youssef contributed from Washington.)

 

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