The last time the U.S. was involved in disbanding large Iraqi military units, things didn't go well the fateful 2003 decision to dissolve the Iraqi army proved to be a key strategic blunder that gave a massive boost to the insurgency. This week the U.S. will try again, transferring control of 54,000 of the 100,000-strong largely Sunni citizen patrols known as the Sons of Iraq (SOI) to a Shi'ite-led government many of them view with suspicion. The rest will remain on the U.S payroll, as part of a phased transfer.
Some 20% of these anti-al-Qaeda groups many of whom had been insurgents paid by the U.S to switch sides will be incorporated into the Iraqi security forces. The rest will be given civilian jobs or training in a bid to help reintegrate them into the general population. But it won't be that simple: after years of vicious sectarian violence, many Sunni Arab patrol members fear retribution from the government; and indeed, some government officials consider the SOIs as little more than thugs and murderers. And as is so often the case in Iraq, the U.S is being blamed this time by Sunni allies, such as tribal leader Sheikh Saleh al-A'ghayde, who accuse the Americans of abandoning them.
Al-A'ghayde, 33, commands one-third of the 923 Sunni fighters that patrol Dora, a predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad where al-Qaeda had banned barbershops and outlawed alcohol. He had 422 men, but about 50 fled, fearing arrest by the government. The district, which is hemmed in by high concrete T-walls, was a byword for terror before locals like the sheikh joined with U.S. forces to rout the extremists.
Like many here, al-A'ghayde is wary of the government, and he is quick to draw comparisons between the dissolution of the SOIs and the disbanding of the Iraqi army. "It's the same thing, exactly," he says. "The American forces betrayed us. It's as if they took us down a path and then stopped us halfway."
U.S. Brigadier General David Perkins, the senior officer overseeing the SOI transition, rejects the comparison as invalid. "This is a completely different situation than when the army was dissolved," he says, "because [for the Iraqi army] there were no guarantees, there were no contracts, there were no transition plans, there were no rehearsals, there were no efforts made by anyone." This time, he says, the U.S. military has exerted "an enormous amount of time and energy" to make sure "this is done properly."
Unlike the members of the former Iraqi army, who were abruptly dismissed and deprived of their livelihoods, each SOI member will continue to be paid during the transition, regardless of whether he ends up in the security forces or a trade apprenticeship. On average, each guard gets a salary of about $300 a month. In a country where unemployment is running at a staggering 60% (according to the quarterly U.S. report on reconstruction efforts), the payments are welcome, but not enough, according to al-A'ghayde and his men.
They don't want to give up their guns to a government they suspect views them with hostility, at a time when they fear revenge from remnants of al-Qaeda and other extremist groups. Across Iraq, many SOIs have been targeted, some killed by unknown assailants. Al-A'ghayde survived an assassination attempt in March, and his home was firebombed a few months before that. He and his men don't want civilian jobs that would not enable them to carry weapons.
"The 20% that will be incorporated into the security forces can at least protect themselves, but what about the 80%?" the sheikh asks. "How are they going to protect themselves against al-Qaeda, against the terrorists?"
As he walks briskly down these dusty streets checking on his men distributed across 30 checkpoints, he is joined by Colonel Abdel-Rida Shwaya of the Iraqi police's 7th Brigade. The young sheikh cuts a striking figure, clad in a crisp, white dishdasha and matching headdress. His weather-beaten face, his thick, black mustache and the tan bandolier draped across his chest give him the look of an Arabic Pancho Villa. Neither man knows if any of Dora's SOIs will be part of the 20% absorbed by the security forces. There are 300 more Sunni patrolmen than there are Iraqi policemen in the area, says Colonel Shwaya, and they have been instrumental in quelling the violence. But, he adds, they've finished the job.
"We want to reduce the number of checkpoints," he says. "Do you want the Iraqi security forces and the Sahwa (SOIs) to remain on the streets 24 hours a day?" he asks Sheikh al-A'ghayde, who has stopped at an unusually sturdy-looking SOI checkpoint. Most are little more than flimsy wooden shacks reinforced with a few sheets of corrugated iron and propped up with several sandbags.
"I am saying that instead of incorporating 20%, incorporate 60%, 70%," the sheikh responds as his men, several of whom are barely teenagers, mill about. Bereft of uniforms, their bright yellow vests and AK-47s are the only markings that distinguish them as citizen patrolmen.
"Why don't you just say that it's an American plan to sell out some Iraqis?" al-A'ghayde says angrily.
"No," the colonel says.
Brigadier General Perkins says that from the get-go, the intent was always that the Sons of Iraq would transition from their security role and be assimilated back into Iraqi society. Iraqi officials say their security forces cannot absorb much more than the 20%, he says, and many SOIs are not capable of meeting the entrance requirements anyway. "Obviously it can't be without limit," he says.
But in the Middle East, perception is often more important than reality, and the perception along these once mean streets is that the U.S. has sold out some of its allies. "The Americans considered us like a piece of paper that was useful for a while but now is no longer needed," says the sheikh. He sternly watches a U.S. patrol of several armored Humvees pass the checkpoint. "The Americans made this decision. Believe me, any promises they make, nobody will believe them. They don't keep their word."
The danger is that such rhetoric will be matched by action. Al-A'ghayde says that won't happen because the SOIs "are not armed militias." Still, both the U.S. military and the Iraqi government know they cannot afford to let the SOIs fall through any cracks and feel alienated from either party.
"We fully understand that the proof will be in the execution," Brigadier General Perkins says. "We, along with the Iraqi government, know that this is strategically important that it is done properly." But the measure of whether it has succeeded will be in the response of Sheikh Saleh al-A'ghayde and his men, and others like them. And right now, the signs are not promising.