‘Sons of Iraq’ role causes some worry
By Thursday, when the security agreement between Iraq and the United States takes effect, about 75 percent of the "Sons of Iraq" groups in the country will be under Iraqi responsibility, U.S. officials said this week.
The transition of the armed groups from U.S. control began last year and has been one of the key worries in cementing the security gains seen in the country in recent months. More than 100,000 "Sons of Iraq" members had been recruited in Iraq over the past two years — some of them former insurgents, most of them young men without jobs.
On Jan. 1, responsibility for the groups falls to the Iraqis in four provinces — Diyala, Babil, Wasit and Qadisiyah. On Feb. 1, all the groups in Anbar province are to follow suit.
The challenge, Iraqi and American officials have acknowledged, is keeping the men from returning to the insurgency.
"We have a common goal: We don’t want the ‘Sons of Iraq’ to turn to al-Qaida. The coalition forces don’t want that. The Iraqi prime minister doesn’t want that. Together, we’ll make this work," Maj. Gen. Michael Ferriter, deputy commander of Multi-National Corps–Iraq, was quoted as saying in a news release about the upcoming transfers.
Ferriter called the process of moving the "Sons of Iraq" into other jobs "the leading edge of reconciliation."
There have been worries about the Shiite-led government of Iraq wanting to disband the groups, which have in many cases given a sense of legitimacy to armed Sunni tribes and what have been called neighborhood militias.
Over the last three months, some 50,000 group members — including those in Baghdad — have been transferred to Iraqi government control. Job training facilities and vocational schools have been established in some areas to make their transition smoother.
"We are beyond the tipping point with the ‘Sons of Iraq,’ " Lt. Col. Jeffrey Kulmayer, chief of reconciliation and engagement for Multi-National Corps-Iraq, was quoted as saying in the release. "They have invested in the future of Iraq. And the Iraqi government is offering them hope in the future. They’re going to be part of that."
Diyala, with its competing ethnic, religious and tribal groups, has long been one of the flash point provinces in Iraq. American officials see the transition there as a key test.
There are some 20,000 "Sons of Iraq" in the four provinces to be transferred, officials said Tuesday. Around 20 percent are to be offered jobs with the Iraqi army and police.
"The goal of this program is to eventually hire these people into meaningful jobs. While many of them are working in security positions right now, ultimately they’ll transition and go into other meaningful jobs, and that’s the goal," said Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin III, commander of MNCI.
Originally calling them "concerned local citizens," the U.S. military changed the groups’ name early in 2008 because the old name "does not translate well into Arabic."
As the groups became more important, insurgents began targeting group members and leaders, killing several dozen top officials throughout the country in 2008.