The last time I met Saif Abdallah, in the winter of 2006, he was proud to have helped kill dozens, possibly hundreds of American soldiers. Then 28, he was a geeky electronics engineer who made trigger devices for roadside bombs known as IEDs the No. 1 cause of U.S. troop casualties. I remember the relish he took in listing his clients, most of them Iraqi Sunni insurgent groups, whom he saw as fellow patriots trying to drive out the American occupier. He had also devised triggers for al-Qaeda. "They pay me," he said then with a shrug. "Anybody who wants to kill American soldiers, if they pay me, I work for them."
Guess who pays him now? The American taxpayer.
He's now a Son of Iraq (SOI), one of nearly 100,000 Sunnis recruited by the U.S. military to fight al-Qaeda. Saif Abdallah (not his real name) is paid about $300 a month, and works with a group of 20 others somewhere north of Baghdad. His job? "Some patrols, some checkpoints," he says with a familiar shrug. "The work is not hard." (See pictures of five years of U.S. troops in Iraq.)
It's impossible to know how many of the Sons of Iraq have, like Abdallah, American blood on their hands. The U.S. military says it took great care during recruitment to try and prevent infiltration. According to Lieut. Colonel Jeffrey Kulmayer, chief of reconciliation and engagement for the Multi-National Corps-Iraq, "There is a screening process before they become SOI, and the [tribal] sheiks vouch for their men."
Abdallah won't tell me how he slipped through the screen or how he, a city dweller, got a tribal sheik to speak on his behalf. He hints that some money changed hands. "Everything is possible with dollars," he says with a laugh. He claims that at least five of the men in his SOI group had been foot soldiers for al-Qaeda. The U.S. soldiers with whom they have regular contact "don't know anything about us," he said.
Hardly surprising, then, that Iraqi officials don't trust the U.S. military's screening process. "We know that the Americans have been misled by some of the sheiks," says Hadi al-Ameri, who heads the Iraqi parliament's security committee. In some cases, he says, the sheiks were simply providing false names in order to extract more money from the U.S. military. (Al-Ameri says there are only 57,000 legitimate SOI; the U.S. military says there are nearly twice that number.) In private, other Iraqi officials worry that some tribal leaders have taken money from both the Americans as well as men like Abdallah.
What the Iraqi government will do with the SOI is a matter of great concern for U.S. commanders, who see them as allies in the fight against al-Qaeda. Iraqi officials are more likely to view them as criminals seeking to hide their murderous past. That's why the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is extremely reluctant to absorb all the SOI into the police and Iraqi army. Says one top police commander: "The Americans may forgive these people for killing American soldiers, but how can we forgive them for killing Iraqis?"
Many Iraqis believe the al-Maliki government will string the SOI along while U.S. troops remain in the country. When the Americans have left, there will be a reckoning and it could well be bloody.
After a great deal of pressure from the U.S. military, the Iraqi government this month finally took charge of paying the salaries for the 54,000 SOI in the Baghdad area. (Abdallah's group remains on the U.S. payroll.) In early November, 3,000 SOI were inducted into the police training academy. Al-Ameri says 15,000 to 20,000 SOI will be inducted into Iraqi security forces, but only after further verification. The rest will have to give up their arms and take up other jobs as carpenters, plumbers, electricians and so on. "We'll give them training if necessary," he adds. (See pictures of Iraq's revival.)
But it's unlikely that men like Abdallah will simply lay down their weapons and be satisfied with a menial job. Many SOI see themselves as the true protectors of their towns and provinces and have nothing but scorn for the Iraqi government, police and army. "If they don't make me at least a captain or a major in the army, I don't want any other job from them," Abdallah says. And what would he do then? "I don't know," he says. "Maybe I'll go back to what I did before." He smiles and makes the universal gesture for an explosion.
In the meantime, he's quite happy to keep drawing $300 a month from the U.S. military. In his spare time, he tools around in a makeshift laboratory at home these days, he says, he mostly helps friends and neighbors repair malfunctioning computers. His one connection to his old life: jihadi websites, where he follows the fortunes of his onetime employers. "I read on the Internet that al-Qaeda are using some of my triggers against the Americans in Afghanistan," he says with giddy excitement. "It is fantastic."