Funding for Iraq groups phasing out
Stars and Stripes June 20, 2007
SHARQAT, Iraq — Military leaders in northern Iraq are pushing to draw down the "Sons of Iraq" program in their part of the country and plan to cut off funding for many of the groups just one month before the provincial elections scheduled for November.
The groups are paid neighborhood watches that began spontaneously when Sunnis turned against al-Qaida in Iraq and other Sunni insurgent groups. American leaders began supporting them financially, and many military leaders have since credited the groups with turning around Iraq’s security situation.
The process in northern Iraq could be a harbinger for how it is done by American units in other parts of the country. The decision to cut off funding has some soldiers worried that Iraq could lose some of its hard-won security gains when the groups disappear.
"Them getting rid of the ‘Sons of Iraq’ is going to be one of the biggest mistakes they’ve made," said 1st Sgt. Michael Livingston, a 1st Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment soldier who has worked extensively with the security volunteers in the Ninevah and Salah ad Din provinces.
Col. Michael A. Bills, the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment commander, made the decision to terminate the "Sons of Iraq" contracts in the areas under his control, which comprise all of Ninevah province and part of Salah ad Din province. Most of the 3rd ACR’s "Sons of Iraq" groups are clustered around Qayyarah. The 3rd ACR does not have any of the groups in Mosul.
Bills’ decision is part of a bigger push from Multi-National Division—North. Officials originally set a firm date for ending the program because the contract money came from funds that could only be used for "temporary critical infrastructure protection," said Capt. Matt Rodano, the officer in charge of reconciliation issues for MND—North. They read that phrase to mean one year after a program started.
"That kind of became the date where those contracts were going to turn into pumpkins," Rodano said.
The program’s success made them remove the hard date and leave it up to the discretion of the commander overseeing the contracts. But they still pushed to "pursue an aggressive plan," he said.
Numbers have fallen from a peak of about 31,500 in MND-N to about 30,700. Rodano couldn’t say exactly where he expects those numbers to be in October.
"Our intent is to get down pretty significantly by the end of the year," he said.
Lt. Col. Thomas Dorame, the 1-3 ACR commander, said he learned about the October funding deadline a few months ago. Dorame said Iraqi soldiers often tell him that they’ve heard the Iraqi government plans to pick up the tab, but he said he’s never been able to confirm those rumors.
Dorame said part of the reasoning is financial. American money is paying for the groups at a time when coalition leaders are transferring responsibility and costs to the Iraqi government. U.S. officials also never asked the Iraqi government to approve the groups, although the Iraqi government doesn’t officially oppose them.
Most importantly, no one envisioned the "Sons of Iraq" as a permanent part of the Iraqi security forces. Some Shiite government leaders have questioned the wisdom of supporting armed groups in a movement that originated among Sunnis.
"The ‘Sons of Iraq’ were never a long-term solution, nor do we want them to be a long-term solution," Dorame said. "They were to fill legitimate security gaps and to buy us time."
But the groups have also provided jobs in a country where more than half of the young men in many cities are unemployed.
Ali Achmet, a Sharqat "Sons of Iraq" member, is typical of many. He had no job until he joined the organization four months ago and depended upon his brother for money. Now he makes $200 to $300 a month.
"We are making Iraq safe," he said.
Similarly, many insurgents only targeted American and Iraqi forces because of the money al-Qaida and other insurgent groups paid them, according to Dorame and Capt. Samuel Cook, the commander of 1-3’s Crazyhorse Troop. The program effectively allowed the Americans to outbid the insurgents for Iraq’s fighting-age males.
With the program gone, poor young men might return to being insurgents–— if not for ideology, then for necessity.
"This is the worst news that I’ve heard," said Khamis Salah Allawi Al Jameli, a "Sons of Iraq" leader in Sharqat. "Believe me, if they destroy the ‘Sons of Iraq,’ the terrorists, they’re going to come back."
The absence of security volunteers will also force more American soldiers into the labor-intensive job of guarding Iraq’s roads. Cook estimates that "Sons of Iraq" checkpoints free up his workload by about a third to a half.
"You talk about drawing down the surge and then past the surge, and then you draw down the [Sons of Iraq] before the police are ready for them? You’re just asking for trouble," he said.
Dorame, Cook and Livingston acknowledge the "Sons of Iraq" were always a temporary solution.
The goal has always been to phase out the program and transition its members into longer term jobs, such as with the Iraqi security forces. While many are eager to join the Iraqi police, many want to avoid the Iraqi army because they can be transferred away from their homes. The Americans are encouraging all the volunteers to apply, but Dorame is hoping 30 percent to 40 percent of his security volunteers actually transfer over.
Rodano said 568 of the volunteers have been moved into the Iraqi police and 153 into a work training program.
But instead of a hard end date, some would like to see the program phased out, perhaps with a 10 percent drawdown each month. This would give the men more time to find jobs and give the area more time to absorb all the extra workers.