Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Sunni Fighters embrace Iraqi Government

South Africa News Baghdad - Gun-toting Sunni Arabs battling al-Qaeda cautiously embraced Iraq's Shi'ite-led government on Wednesday as the US military transferred the responsibility of paying them to Baghdad without major hiccoughs. The transfer of responsibility for all 100 000 "Sons of Iraq" (SoI), as the US military calls them, and credited with helping to curb the violence in the country, got under way with 54 000 men in the province of Baghdad. On Wednesday, Omar Samir, 36, a leader of one such group known as Sahwas in Arabic, said the 63 members under his command in Baghdad's Sunni district of Adhamiyah were happy to be paid by Baghdad. "We're really happy; we feel that from today we'll be representing Iraqi law 100%. From now on we'll receive our orders from the Iraqi government," Samir told AFP. He said his men filled out papers and underwent medical tests to join either the police or the army. The transfer was a long-standing demand of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, and the date for the handover was agreed with the US military in August. Iraqi National Security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie told AFP the government will pay the first salary at the end of the month. The monthly bill of Baghdad's 54 000 Shawas is around $15m. Gradual transfer Control of the remaining Sahwas in central, western and north-central Iraq will be transferred gradually. The mostly former insurgents who fought US and Iraqi forces after Saddam Hussein fell in 2003, have helped curb the violence since late 2006 after they sided with the Americans to battle al-Qaeda. Baghdad has said 20% of them would be absorbed into the country's security forces and that most of the rest would be considered for civilian jobs. Some Sahwas have also expressed caution about the transfer. "We are happy, but also afraid," said Abu Safa'a, a Sahwa leader. "I am concerned about those who do not join the security forces. They are going to be targets of al-Qaeda." Rubaie said Baghdad will continue to employ these men to expand the security gains. "All volunteers are being carefully screened" medically for absorbing them into the security forces, he said, adding that Baghdad would also be responsible for assuring the economic future of those Sahwas who do not join the security forces. Risks erasing security gains Takssin Saadi, 36, who works as an electrician by night and a Sahwa by day, says he wants to exchange his day job for a position in the police. "I want to be a policeman, but I think we are going to be integrated into the army, because there is an army base in the neighbourhood," he said. If the Sahwas are not accommodated in security forces or state jobs, Iraq risks erasing security gains achieved since late last year, according to lawmakers and analysts. Kurdish MP Mahmud Othman said "the Shi'ite government looks at them as a political enemy. It sees them as Arab Sunni fighters who were former al-Qaeda or insurgents fighting the government and they have to be punished". US commanders have also warned that those fighters who do not find employment could return to insurgent activities. "The Sons of Iraq have paid a heavy price fighting al-Qaeda with us," the US commander for Baghdad, Major General Jeffery Hammond, said last week. "The whole world is watching what the government does with SoI transition, above all in Baghdad where it starts," he said. "Guys who are not successful, they could be back on the streets, angry, al-Qaeda will be recruiting them, and we take a step in the wrong direction." Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group said the real problem was not the transfer, but the absorption of the militiamen. He said if these Sahwas are not absorbed efficiently it "is very likely... the SoI will revert to insurgency as a way, probably unsuccessful, of achieving their objectives of rolling back Iranian influence and regaining power". Iraq has seen a downward trend in violence since the middle of last year.

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