U.S. Plans to Form Job Corps For Iraqi Security Volunteers
Friday, December 7, 2007
BAGHDAD -- The U.S. military plans to establish a civilian jobs corps to absorb tens of thousands of mostly Sunni security volunteers whom Iraq's Shiite-dominated government has balked at hiring into local police forces.
The new jobs program marks a sharp departure from one of the most highly touted goals of the so-called Sunni awakening, which was to funnel the U.S.-paid volunteers, many of them former insurgents, into Iraq's police and military.
President Bush and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, have said the volunteers have played a major role in the recent downturn in violence and would provide a key element of local security as U.S. forces draw down. Plans to reconfigure the program raise new questions about the permanence of security and political structures the United States has sought to impose on Iraq.
The Bush administration has described the hiring of the volunteers by police forces as proof that Iraqis are beginning to reconcile sectarian differences. Yet the government here has shown only grudging interest in the program, despite constant U.S. pressure.
So far the Iraqi government has approved police jobs for only 1,738 members of what the United States calls the Concerned Local Citizens program, or CLC. Of a total 60,321 registered volunteers, about 51,190 are currently on short-term U.S. contracts that pay an average of $300 a month, officials said. The program has spread beyond Anbar province, and officials said new recruits appear daily in Baghdad and the central and northern parts of the country.
The Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has lagged in hiring the volunteers, more than three-quarters of whom are Sunnis. Sectarian concerns are "still an obstacle. I won't lie to you about that," said Col. Martin Stanton, who tracks the program for Petraeus's command. "They're deeply suspicious of any organized group of Sunnis," Stanton said of the government.
The military still expects some volunteers to be hired as police officers but has concluded that the majority will not be. Fearing that the armed men might return to violence without long-term job prospects, it has decided to divert them into civilian work or send them to vocational training programs. It hopes to persuade the Iraqi government to take over management and financing of the reconfigured program -- which will begin in January with a shift of 500 Baghdad volunteers from security tasks to public works -- by the end of next year.
Right now, Stanton said, the idea of an Iraqi takeover is "still in concept," and the government is "not in any way, shape or form ready to take over these contracts." He added that the military wants to avoid ending up with the Iraqis "dropping the baton in the relay race. . . . We want to make sure they're running and ready to get it before we turn it over."
He said the pilot program would be called the Civil Service Corps and compared it to the U.S. Civilian Conservation Corps, the Depression-era federal public works program created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
"We can't pay them to stand on street corners with rifles forever," Stanton said of the volunteers. "We have to transition them into non-security type employment." He said that in some Sunni villages, virtually the entire male population had asked to be put on the U.S. payroll. "If there are 800 men in the town and they all want to be a guard, we can't have them all guarding each other."
A similar pilot for non-security CLC employment is being planned by the U.S. Agency for International Development as part of its existing Community Stabilization Program, according to USAID's Iraq mission director, Christopher D. Crowley.
The Baghdad government's failure to pass reform legislation and reach compromises among the main ethnic and sectarian groups until now has taken a back seat to security concerns. But the overall decrease in violence has begun to focus congressional attention on Maliki's ability to run a functioning, nonsectarian government.