By Karen DeYoung and Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.
Approaching their next progress report to Congress in March, Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker do not want to have to explain that the much-hailed "awakening" is falling apart because Maliki failed to capitalize on the opportunity it presented to incorporate Sunnis into national life.
U.S. officials were encouraged when Maliki told Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno at a meeting of his national security committee Sunday that the government was willing in principle to take over at least part of the program and fund the volunteers. "I think that's a big step forward," Odierno told CNN. Maliki's only stipulation, a Western diplomat said, was that the security recruitment not be extended into overwhelmingly Shiite southern Iraq.
Maliki's Shiite advisers had long expressed deep reservations about the CLC program, and U.S. officials said his agreement indicated a willingness to break with them. "It's not so much the ministers that were the problem," said the Western diplomat. "But this Dawa clique of advisers around him were just dead set against it," he said in reference to Maliki's Dawa party.
The specifics of what the Iraqis have agreed to remained imprecise and confusing. Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a telephone interview that some CLCs would be integrated into the security forces while others would be given non-security jobs. But he offered no breakdown and said they would be made "part of the security troops of Iraq, and there will be a transition period to take them and keep them integrated with the Iraqi security."
The Western diplomat said the government has agreed to take over 12,000 CLC contracts in Baghdad. At a news conference Wednesday, Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, the Iraqi military spokesman for the Baghdad security plan, said the Baghdad police would take the 12,000 volunteers and recruit an additional 45,000 in the capital.
The slow pace of government vetting is largely what caused U.S. officials to decide that the CLC program should become a job corps. With tens of thousands of current U.S. contract-holders, the Iraqi government only last week completed months-long vetting of an additional 2,000, beyond the 1,738 already given police jobs in the town of Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad. At least 8,000 of the U.S.-paid volunteers remain in the vetting pipeline.
Tariq al-Hashimi, Iraq's Sunni vice president, said in an interview that he had not received any official word on a decision to integrate them into the government.
"Hopefully, this will be the first step to accept and accommodate al-Sahwah after months of pushing to address this issue," Hashimi said, using the Arabic word meaning "the awakening" for the CLCs. "I think we have reached a turning point. Either we go ahead and make this program sustainable for the future and encourage people to shoulder the responsibility to fight the takfiris," he said, referring to religious extremists, "or the whole process will collapse and the government will be held responsible for the consequences."
The government voiced little concern during the early days of the CLC program, when it was largely restricted to Sunni-dominated Anbar province. U.S.-supplied statistics on the volunteers do not include most of the Anbari recruits -- believed to number around 25,000 at the height of the initial "awakening" -- many of whom now serve as local police in that province.
In the absence of definitive Iraqi steps, the U.S. military is moving ahead with its own CLC transition. Only about 21,000 volunteers have said they want to join the Iraqi police, according to U.S. figures.
Ahmad Abdul Salam, a 24-year-old volunteer in Diyala province, said he supported an Iraqi government takeover. Jobs and monthly salaries, he said, would help Iraqis turn away from war, he said, adding that "the occupier will not stay forever and will leave Iraq sooner or later."
Jubair Rasheed Naif, who lives in Baghdad's Jadriya neighborhood and works with a local volunteer group, disagreed. "Definitely there will be problems of organization if the Americans aren't in charge," he said. "I expect also that the salaries will be reduced."