Sons of Iraq a test for Baghdad
By Richard Tomkins
BAGHDAD - Come the New Year, Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated government, led by Prime
Minister Nuri al-Maliki, faces an ongoing challenge, the results of which could
either bridge or widen the country's sectarian divide, and contribute to or
undermine its security efforts.
The test is the transition of more than 25,000 Sons of Iraq (SOI) volunteers in
parts of the so-called Sunni Triangle from US to Iraqi control.
It may not seem such a difficult task, as the mechanics are already in place. A
template for the process was developed and
used successfully in Baghdad, where some 50,000 Sunni and Shi'ite guards were
transitioned in October.
Yet difficulty lies ahead and it all has to do with the concept of theka,
"We don't trust the Iraqi government," says Ahmad Hamid Muhammad al-Jaburi, a
Sunni SOI leader in the town of Duluyiah in Salah al-Din governorate, north of
Baghdad. "They don't trust us, so how can we trust them? We don't think they
are serious with us."
"In truth we trust Americans more than the Iraqi government," SOI leader Hakim
Razak said in the city of Samarra. "The Iraqi government we think belongs to
the Iranian government; this city belongs to the Sunni, the Iraq government is
The sentiments of the two aren't one-offs. They are echoed by security group
leaders throughout Salah al-Din governorate, where the SOI are expected to
shift to Iraqi control before summer.
The question of transition, when raised by a reporter in meetings with various
group leaders, was met with similar answers and non-verbal accompaniments. Eyes
took on a look of concern, the clacking of worry beads increased in tempo, and
the cigarette smoke thickened as heavy smoking became chain-smoking.
Gesticulating increased in proportion to the volume of talk. "We don't know
what's going to happen to us," says Muhammad Ibrahim Khalil.
"Al-Qaeda is already trying to assassinate us. If we are disbanded, we're dead
The Sons of Iraq - formerly called the Concerned Local Citizens (CLC) by the US
military - grew out of the 2006 Sahawa (Awakening) among Sunnis in
al-Anbar governorate. Sunni tribes, some of which had fought US forces for
nationalist reasons, rebelled against the foreign-born al-Qaeda fighters in
They then made common cause with the Americans, and in 2007 began forming armed
neighborhood watch groups under US direction. That mechanism later spread
throughout the Sunni Triangle and beyond. In Baghdad, the CLC concept became an
integral part of the new US counter-insurgency strategy of clear, hold, and
The armed CLCs, by establishing checkpoints in their own neighborhoods, denied
access and maneuvering ability to al-Qaeda and other extremists. They also
proved invaluable in obtaining intelligence passed on to US and Iraqi forces.
The program had another benefit as well. By paying the neighborhood guards
(US$300 monthly for lower-level personnel), employment was created, thus
shrinking the extremists' casual labor pool for planting improvised explosive
Iraq's central government, which now acknowledges those contributions, opposed
the US program from the start and has wanted to dismantle it, fearing the
groups could eventually become an armed threat to its authority.
With Iraq now taking the lead in its security and with the US presence set to
diminish, disbanding is now taking place.
Under a US-Iraqi transition program, the government of Iraq is taking over SOI
group contracts and will eventually absorb about 20% of SOI members into its
police and army ranks. Those not chosen for the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF)
will be given government jobs or undergo paid vocational training.
"The government will not abandon these people," says retired Iraqi Major
General Mudher Almaala, who helps oversee the transition process now taking
place in Baghdad. "The government will provide employment opportunities for
these people ... as a reward for their sacrifice and their duties."
But even promises kept can have wrinkles.
Officers of the US Army's 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division
say transitioning in east Baghdad has gone well.
In mid-November most of the SOI that came under Iraqi control on October 1
(about 50,000 men) were paid on time by the Iraqi government - a key concern
for the SOI.
Payroll glitches, soon rectified, were ascribed to recipient identification
discrepancies - missing names, misspellings, incorrect identification numbers -
and the fact that Iraqi army troops, paid at the same time, had precedence.
But that didn't ease the initial anxiety of those whose payments were delayed.
Nor did it relieve anxiety over lack of a firm time frame for transitioning to
the Iraqi police or Iraqi army.
SOI in Baghdad - Shi'ite as well as Sunni - receive their second Iraqi
government paychecks later this month. Then, as before, their US-directed
compatriots in other areas of Iraq will be watching closely.
"I want to be honest with you," says Sheikh Sadon Radam Hussein al-Kazraji, a
Shi'ite SOI leader in an area near the city of Balad in Salah Al-Din
Governorate. "There is too much corruption. Maybe they'll pay completely at
first, but what about later?"
Complicating the process - and adding fuel to worry and distrust - is
identifying who is actually a member of the SOI. Members have come and gone and
membership lists don't always reflect the changes.
Members, especially those hoping for ISF or government jobs, must be vetted for
past criminal activities or past ties to extremist organizations. That takes
time. And Iraq only has a limited number of police and army training academies.
In Samarra, for example, it took about six months before US forces won approval
for about 700 SOIs to transfer to the Iraqi police. This was done earlier in
the year before there was a formal transition process that now involves tens of
Yet there is some progress. SOI in Diyala governorate, northeast of Baghdad,
are expected to transition to Iraqi control as early as next month. According
to US military officials, the screening process has already been started by
Iraqi's 5th Army Division and the US Army's 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team,
Diyala - with a mixed population of Arab Sunnis, Arab Shi'ite and Kurds - could
be a challenge. Al-Qaeda is still active in pockets along the province's border
with Iran and they would be expected to try to take advantage of any security
void a transition may inadvertently create.
Also, actions earlier this year by Iraqi troops have left SOI uneasy. Iraqi
military forces in late summer/early autumn, while conducting counterinsurgency
operations detained, at least briefly, hundreds of SOI members whose names were
on a list of wanted persons. The move came after the provincial council had
earlier ousted an anti-SOI provincial police chief appointed by the al-Maliki
government without the councilís prior approval.
In Salah Al-Din, a predominantly Sunni province abutting Diyala, worry is
palpable. But despite the distrust on the part of its SOIs, there are
Sunni SOIs in Samarra, at the US' insistence, are already manning security
points with National Police, who are mainly Shi'ite. Initial refusal gave way
to grudging compliance and now, according to US commanders, there is a degree
of cooperation between the SOIs and police that would have been unimaginable
just months ago.
"We think we [have] defeated al-Qaeda here [in Samarra]," Sheikh Khalid Flayeh
al-Bazi said. "This is a good reason for the government to come forward and
build trust with us. We didn't fight Iraqi forces. We are on their side."
Sheikh Khalid and others fretted that the Iraqi government hasn't consulted
them yet on the planned transition for SOI in Salah Al-Din. But that is
expected to come as it has in Baghdad, where local SOI leaders, sheikhs, and
community leaders were brought into the process.
Sooner will be better than later.
"Trust is incremental," says Lieutenant Colonel PJ McGee, who has just
completed his third tour of duty in Iraq. "I've spent three years here and some
of the most scared people I saw were the SOI coming forward to volunteer."
"They have put their families' lives on the line. They know the consequences if
things go wrong," and security should deteriorate.