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Capt. David N. Simms wanted the tribal sheiks to have no doubts—the $500,000 his unit spends every month to pay and equip local tribesmen to keep peace here will soon run out and they had better be ready when it’s gone.
Simms handed the sheiks 600 applications for a vocational school in nearby Baghdad. It’s one option, he said, to prepare the men for life after he stops giving them salaries.
The “Sons of Iraq” are the estimated 80,000 fighters—mostly Sunni tribesmen and former insurgents—recruited and paid by the U.S. military to help fight al-Qaida and maintain security in neighborhoods, including this Sunni farming community west of Baghdad.
The program has been a remarkable success, helping reduce violence across the country by 80 percent since early 2007 at the cost of $216 million to date.
Nearly two years into the program, however, the U.S. is gradually handing over responsibility for the Sons of Iraq to the Shiite-led government. By January, the military hopes to turn the entire program over to the Iraqis.
But the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been reluctant to absorb large numbers of armed Sunnis into the Shiite-dominated security forces. American officials fear that many of the U.S.-backed fighters may turn their guns on the government unless jobs can be found for them.
“If we don’t find work for the men, it will work against us,” said Asaad Nawar al-Ameen, a retired general in Saddam’s army who heads the Sons of Iraq in Radwaniyah. “Al-Qaida can get them.”
The government already has accepted nearly 20 percent of Sons in Iraq members in the security forces and is pledging to find civilian jobs for most of the rest.
Meanwhile, it has introduced “support councils” made up of trusted tribal chiefs and their followers to support the security forces.
But that move is seen by leaders of the Sons of Iraq as an attempt to sideline them at a time when some of them are complaining that the Americans are abandoning them to a government they don’t trust.
In Radwaniyah, the government recently named a wealthy businessman, Ayad Abdul-Jabar al-Jaborui, to head the new support council.
Al-Jabouri, wearing a smart creme suit and a tie, repeatedly told last week’s meeting that he was to have a meeting with “his excellency” the prime minister soon. His office is decorated with pictures of himself along with top army commanders and al-Maliki’s aides.
But even al-Jabouri, also a Sunni tribal chief, acknowledges that the government that is courting him may be trying to drive a wedge between the Sons of Iraq and the recently created support councils.
“The government is promoting a rift between us and the Sons of Iraq,” he said. “My response was to name Gen. Asaad as the head of the council’s security committee.”
Kamal al-Saadi, a lawmaker from al-Maliki’s Dawa party, said the leadership had worried about al-Qaida infiltration into the Sons of Iraq but now believed that “the government has become too strong for the Sons of Iraq to be a threat.”
But a top al-Maliki aide, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said he is still worried about the loyalty of the Sons of Iraq.
“They are like mercenaries,” he said. “Today, they are paid by the Americans. Tomorrow they can be paid by al-Qaida.”
Some of those concerns are shared by residents in some parts of Baghdad who complain that Sons of Iraq members are branching out into extortion and protection rackets.
“They are abusing the powers given to them by the Americans,” said Ahmed Abed Jassim, who runs an electronics store in the Fadhil neighborhood.
Mohammed al-Aazami, a 40-year-old schoolteacher in Azamiyah, complains that young fighters “brandish their weapons provocatively and lack discipline.”
“They are too young and they need to be offered training and guidance,” he said.
Earlier this month, hundreds of displaced Shiites demonstrated in central Baghdad to protest against the Sons of Iraq in the Sunni-dominated Adil district, claiming the Sunni gunmen were preventing them from returning to their homes in the west Baghdad neighborhood.
Nevertheless, in many impoverished areas of this country, the Sons of Iraq program pays dividends beyond manning checkpoints and improving security.
In Radwaniyah, a farming community where Saddam Hussein used to go hunting, the local economy depends heavily on the money that the Americans pay to the local Sons of Iraq, who chased away al-Qaida a year ago.
Each volunteer receives between $150 and $300 or more a month—roughly the same as a police recruit. Local sheiks earn much more to help raise and equip their followers.
But of the 900 men who have asked to join the police or army, only 45 have been accepted to the police, Simms said.
Simms, a 31-year-old native of St. Marys, Ohio, is not sure how much longer he can keep paying them and the local sheiks who administer their contracts.
Hence, he hopes to enroll as many of the fighters as possible in the vocational school, where they earn a monthly stipend of $240 paid by the government and a diploma after a year’s training.
“We don’t want to fire these guys and leave them on the streets without an income,” Simms told the sheiks during a meeting this week. “It is competitive to get into that school. We want to reduce the number of the Sons of Iraq, so I want these forms returned to me as soon as possible.”