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Key US Iraq Strategy in Danger of Collapse

Leila Fadel

BAGHDAD - A key pillar of the U.S. strategy to pacify Iraq is in
danger of collapsing because the Iraqi government is failing to absorb
tens of thousands of former Sunni Muslim insurgents who'd joined
U.S.-allied militia groups into the country's security forces.

American officials have credited the militias, known as the Sons of
Iraq or Awakening councils, with undercutting support for the group al
Qaida in Iraq and bringing peace to large swaths of the country,
including Anbar province and parts of Baghdad. Under the program, the
United States pays each militia member a stipend of about $300 a month
and promised that they'd get jobs with the Iraqi government.

the Iraqi government, which is led by Shiite Muslims, has brought only
a relative handful of the more than 100,000 militia members into the
security forces. Now officials are making it clear that they don't
intend to include most of the rest.

cannot stand them, and we detained many of them recently," said one
senior Iraqi commander in Baghdad, who spoke only on the condition of
anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the issue. "Many of
them were part of al Qaida despite the fact that many of them are
helping us to fight al Qaida."

He said the army was considering
setting a Nov. 1 deadline for those militia members who hadn't been
absorbed into the security forces or given civilian jobs to give up
their weapons. After that, they'd be arrested, he said.

Some militia members say that such a move would force them into open warfare with the government again.

they disband us now, I will tell you that history will show we will go
back to zero," said Mullah Shahab al Aafi, a former emir, or leader, of
insurgents in Diyala province who's the acting commander of 24,000 Sons
of Iraq there, 11,000 of whom are on the U.S. payroll. "I will not give
up my weapons. I will never give them up, and I will carry my weapon
again. If it is useless to talk to the government, I will be forced to
carry my weapons and my pistol."

The conflict over the militias
underscores how little has changed in Iraq in the past year despite the
drop in violence, which American politicians often attribute to the
temporary increase of U.S. troops in Iraq that ended in July.

military officials here have always said that the creation of the Sunni
militias was at least as important to the precipitous drop in violence
as the presence of 30,000 more U.S. troops, and that incorporating them
into the security forces would go a long way toward bringing about the
sort of reconciliation needed for long-term stability.

initially embracing the idea of bringing the militia members into the
security forces, however, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki hasn't
followed through. A committee that Maliki formed to organize the
militias' transition to full-fledged government security troops fell
apart and was reconstituted only recently. U.S. officials acknowledge
that the hiring of the Sunnis has slowed to a crawl.

U.S. and
Iraqi officials agree that the Maliki government never agreed to hire
more than 20 percent of the militia members. A Maliki ally said it was
unreasonable to expect otherwise.

"All the Americans are doing is
paying them just to be quiet," said Haider al Abadi, a leading member
of Maliki's Dawa political party and the head of the economic and
investment committee in the parliament. The Iraqi government, he said,
can't "justify paying monthly salaries to people on the grounds that
they are ex-insurgents."

The best that most of them could expect
is to be placed in vocational training for trades such as bricklaying
and plumbing, along with a slew of other unemployed people.

government has allocated $150 million for such training. So far this
year, the U.S. military has spent $303 million on Sons of Iraq salaries.

officials declined to be interviewed on the issue without a pledge of
anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the subject. But privately they
expressed concern.

"If they only take a portion of them it's
possible they will return to their insurgent ways," one senior
intelligence analyst said, acknowledging that most of the men now
called the Sons of Iraq had been insurgents, for al Qaida in Iraq and
other groups that considered themselves resistance fighters against


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He called the issue the "long-term threat."

need to be busy, industrious, just like us," he said. Without jobs, he
said, they'll "revert back to how they received money before."

15,000 militia members have been given security jobs since the
beginning of last year, according to the U.S. military. Another 2,342
have been approved for jobs with the Iraqi police after the Iraqi army
opposed absorbing them.

The United States has 103,000 militia members on its payroll.

Abadi, the Maliki ally, was blunt in calling the militias a problem.

"You've created a problem here," he said. "You can't get rid of a program by shoveling it on the Iraqi government shoulders."

Kahl, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a
centrist policy institute in Washington, who recently visited Iraq,
said the dispute over the militias could set the stage for a return of
widespread bloodshed, particularly because the Maliki government seemed
intent on thwarting the plan.

He noted that of the militia
members slated to join the security forces, only 600 have completed the
required training. Of those, most are Shiites.

Kahl, who spoke
with senior U.S. officials during his visit to Iraq, said that the
Iraqi government was providing jobs to the militia members in
"humiliating ways." He said former Iraqi army officers were being
absorbed as low-level beat cops, and men who saw themselves as the
"slayers of al Qaida" were being asked to become plumbers and

"The last time we humiliated thousands of these guys is back in 2003, and we got the insurgency," Kahl said.

Abd al Sattar Hassan Mohammed al Obeidi, a deputy Sunni militia
commander in the northern Baghdad neighborhood of Adhamiyah, wore a
military uniform in an interview with McClatchy last week because he
considered his men and himself to be soldiers.

He voiced frustration that his men had applied repeatedly to join the Iraqi Security Forces, to no avail.

wish we were part of the army. With deep remorse the government is
sectarian," Obeidi said. He described his alliance with the U.S. forces
as "the enemy of your enemy is your friend."

"The Sons of Iraq achieved security. Don't they deserve to enter the army?"

will never see that happen. On Sunday, a suicide bomber on a bicycle
killed him, along with five of his men and nine civilians.

McClatchy special correspondent Mohammed al Dulaimy contributed to this report.

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