By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 2, 2008
BAGHDAD, Oct. 1 -- The Iraqi government on Wednesday began assuming control of the U.S.-backed armed groups that have helped curtail violence here, in a high-stakes test for the American strategy to stabilize Iraq.
Iraqi authorities officially took command of about 54,000 "Sons of Iraq" in the Baghdad area on Wednesday, and U.S. officials say they will transfer authority over additional members of the groups as conditions permit.
The Pentagon said in a report Tuesday that a smooth transition of the roughly 100,000 armed guards to Iraqi employment was "critical to providing stable security" in the country. Iraq's Shiite-led government has been wary of the largely Sunni forces, which include many former insurgents. Some have threatened to resume attacks if the government conducts widespread arrests or otherwise treats them harshly.
The handover of the armed groups was a low-key affair in Baghdad, where government offices are closed for a six-day holiday marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The transition was largely symbolic, since the U.S. military plans to stay involved with the groups for several months as the Iraqi government begins paying their salaries and decides how to employ them.
Still, in the middle-class neighborhood of Zayouna, in southeastern Baghdad, the government's new role was evident as an Iraqi army commander handed out crisp $100 bills to Sons of Iraq members at a security compound.
Hovering over the shoulder of Maj. Abbas Kadim were U.S. soldiers who had given him the cash.
"It's to get them used to paying the Sons of Iraq, instead of us doing it alone," said Army Staff Sgt. Aaron McDonough, 27, of the 3rd Squadron, 89th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division. He had invited Iraqi military and police officials to make what are supposed to be the final U.S. payments to the 163 Sons of Iraq in the neighborhood.
Kadim, in camouflage fatigues and a maroon beret, sat at a table on a patio next to a Sons of Iraq supervisor who checked off members' names as they claimed their salaries.
"They are our sons. They are Iraqis," said Kadim, who jovially greeted the members of the armed groups, jokingly offering to marry off one of them to a female American soldier. "We have no differences with them. We like, we respect them very much."
But out of earshot of the commander, Sons of Iraq said they feared for their future.
Mohammad Idan, 42, a former shopkeeper in a button-down shirt and casual slacks, said he had heard rumors about the Iraqi security forces kidnapping and "disappearing" a Sons of Iraq member.
"We will never feel safe with them," he said.
Amer Saleem Meki said he was worried about losing the $300-a-month salary the Americans had provided for patrolling the neighborhood and passing on information.
"I don't think this is going to succeed. There will be no support for us. I'm already 35," Meki said, referring to age limitations that prevent him from joining the Iraqi military or police.
Iraqi authorities have agreed to employ 20 percent of the Sons of Iraq in the country's security forces and to find other jobs for the rest. But only about 3,400 members of the Sons of Iraq in the Baghdad area have been accepted into the army and police so far.
Alarm spread through the Sons of Iraq in recent weeks after the government issued arrest warrants for hundreds of their men around the country.
Under U.S. pressure, the Iraqi government has agreed not to arrest any of the Sons of Iraq without a warrant issued in the past six months and not to fire any without cause. The government is supposed to put the Sons of Iraq on its payroll this month.
But asked whether the Iraqi government would be covering the next payday, McDonough looked uncomfortable.
"I wish I could say, 'Yeah, it will be,' but I can't," the U.S. soldier said. The Iraqi police official he had invited to hand out payments on Wednesday did not show up.
The Sons of Iraq program started in western Anbar province in 2006, when Sunni tribal leaders abandoned their fight against U.S. military forces and became their allies in combating the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The U.S.-backed forces are one of the main reasons cited for the dramatic drop in violence in Iraq in the past year, along with a cease-fire by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and the increase in U.S. troops who began working closely with Iraqi security forces in neighborhood bases.
According to Interior Ministry statistics provided Wednesday by an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, 860 people died in Iraq in war-related violence in September, including 130 members of the security forces. That compares with 2,431 killed in the same month a year ago.
Special correspondent Aziz Alwan contributed to this report.