U.S. worries about losing 'Sons of Iraq' expertise
February 11, 2009
NAHR AL IMAM, Iraq — After stumbling across a few hundred yards of dirt clods outside this Diyala province village, Rahim Muhammad Mahmoud points a group of U.S. soldiers to a crater in a drought-hardened farm field.
After some digging, U.S. Army Capt. Timothy Walton nods approvingly as Mahmoud, the area’s "Sons of Iraq" leader, hands him several jagged, twisted bits of metal — proof of a reported rocket strike the soldiers were investigating.
It’s this type of intelligence U.S. soldiers fear losing if rising friction between members of the Iraqi army and the "Sons of Iraq," a security group largely made up of former militants who turned against the insurgency, is not addressed.
A U.S. Special Forces soldier working with Walton said getting information from Iraqis who know the insurgency from the inside is invaluable.
"A good guy isn’t going to know anything — a bad guy is going to know everything," the soldier said.
Across Iraq there are about 100,000 members of the "Sons of Iraq," formerly called "concerned local citizens." They can be seen manning checkpoints carrying AK-47s and often wearing mismatched uniforms with their now ubiquitous neon green belts (given to them by American troops to help distinguish friend from foe during firefights).
This is a crucial time for the "Sons of Iraq" program in Diyala province, once al-Qaida in Iraq’s self-proclaimed capital. February’s paycheck, expected around the middle of the month, will be the first to be distributed by the Iraqi government without American oversight.
American soldiers have embraced the program, citing it as a major reason why violence has fallen precipitously in much of Iraq. But trust between "Sons of Iraq" members and Iraqi soldiers and police is still at a premium. Mahmoud says his men are still blamed by authorities for insurgent attacks and he himself tells U.S. troops that Iraqi security forces might be behind the same attacks.
Mahmoud said Iraqi soldiers search him during his thrice-weekly visits to the local army station.
"It’s just like before — there is not enough respect," he said. One of Mahmoud’s recruits, Ibrahim Mahmoud, said he thinks he will eventually get a job with the Iraqi army, but is dismayed by constant accusations from his Iraqi security forces counterparts.
"Imagine, what would you do if someone accused you of lying?"
Only one of Mahmoud’s 20 men has landed a government job, and across the province, the Iraqi security forces have been slow to recruit "Sons of Iraq" members.
Capt. Munhel Majid Hamid, a local police commander, said he has a good relationship with the "Sons of Iraq" and is awaiting instructions from the Iraqi Ministry of Finance for guidance on how to integrate the group into local security forces.
"We’ve got a plan for the future to have more people from the (‘Sons of Iraq’)," he said, although he added that he does not have a timetable for hiring them.
Rahim Mahmoud is not as hopeful about the Iraqi government’s plan to give "Sons of Iraq" members jobs, or even continue paying them.
"When the coalition forces leave, they’re going to dismiss us," he said.
The possibility of thousands of jobless armed men worries Walton, who is with the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division.
"If the payment ever stops, yeah, that could cause a lot of pain," he said.