BAGHDAD — The United States will transfer control of the "Sons of Iraq" to the Iraqi government by April, officials from both countries said Sunday.

The transfer appears to be going faster than expected. Initially officials said it was to be completed across the country by June, a critical time for the country. Under a security pact approved recently, U.S. troops would withdraw from cities and towns and work out of bases by June 30.

The Iraqi government began paying the salaries of 51,000 members in Baghdad three months ago. An additional 20,000 members of the armed civilian groups, which began forming in 2006 to fight al-Qaida and other insurgents, will be shifted from the U.S. to Iraqi government’s payroll by February, said Maj. Gen. Michael Ferriter, deputy commanding general for operations for Multi-National Corps-Iraq.

"The signs are that this is going in the right direction," he said during a news conference.

Twenty percent of the "Sons of Iraq," who have been credited for helping to calm violence in the country, will enter the Iraqi security forces, mostly to become police officers, Ferriter said. The rest will be offered civil jobs, with many receiving vocational training, he said.

Shifting the armed groups from U.S. to Iraqi control — and ensuring they don’t return to the insurgency — has been a key concern in cementing security gains made during the past year.

Three thousand "Sons of Iraq" have already been admitted to the police force so far. Some applicants had been rejected because of previous insurgent activity and criminal history, though Ferriter said he didn’t know how many.

"I don’t think the stats are nearly as important as how (the transition) is being carried out," he said. He also said that he didn’t see a problem with "warlordism," or members remaining loyal to local sheiks who oppose the U.S. and current Iraqi government.

Officials said applicants to the security forces have to meet physical fitness, psychological and education requirements, including being able to read and write. They also undergo a criminal background check.

Dr. Zuhair al-Chalabi, a spokesman for the Committee for National Reconciliation, said the "Sons of Iraq" would remain loyal to Iraq after the transfer.

"The loyalty is to who pays. It is for sure their loyalty is going to be to the Iraqi government," he said.

Al-Chalabi said lower oil prices will not affect the Iraqi government’s ability or commitment to pay salaries to the "Sons of Iraq."

As the groups became more important, insurgents began targeting group members and leaders, killing several dozen top officials throughout the country in 2008.

Ferriter said more than 500 members of the group were killed during the past year.

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