Iraq's Sunnis Fear Life Without U.S. Oversight

U.S. hands over "Son's of Iraq" program to Iraq, sparking Sunni fears.

JAMBARIYAH, Iraq, —Oct. 1, 2008 -- As the Iraqi government takes over responsibility for paying the salaries of the so-called Sons of Iraq, many of these mostly Sunni fighters fear the nation's Shiite-led government will leave them jobless -- or worse -- Shiite militias within the Iraqi police and army will target them for assassination.

The Iraqi government began taking over responsibility for these informal security forces today, with the first paychecks coming from the Iraqi government next month. Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told ABC News Iraq plans to give 20 percent of the nation's 100,000 Sons of Iraq jobs to the police force and army.

"I don't think that the Iraqi government neither the Multi National Forces could achieve such success and security without their participation," al-Dabbagh told ABC News.

But here in the small village of Jambariyah, an al Qaeda stronghold north of Baghdad until early this year, just one of 70 Sons of Iraq has been hired to date, and of the 1,200 in the city of Dujail, none.

If his men go without jobs, al Qaeda and violence will return, said Saad Hatem Farhan, mayor -- or mukhtar -- of Jambariyah. "Most of us will be killed. The rest, they'll force them to be insurgents again."

Now, despite their success, Iraq's Shiite-controlled government plans to disband the Sons of Iraq here and throughout the country. That has the Sons of Iraq, according to Farhan, "very, very worried" that government neglect or malice toward these groups will unravel a fragile peace in village after village across Iraq.

The program has been widely deemed a success, hailed by American military leaders as a key to the success of the American troop surge in quelling violence in this fragile, war-torn nation. As he departed last week as the top commander on the ground in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus was asked if hiring 20 percent into the security forces was enough.

"That depends on what happens to the other 80 percent," he said.

The government says it has a plan. After hiring 20,000 Sons of Iraq in the army and police, the government says it will vet the remaining 80,000 for criminal ties and hire those who are qualified in other civil service jobs, at least until they find other work. But in a country where jobs are scarce and sectarian suspicions linger, leaders of these groups put little trust in the government.

"We distrust the Iraqi government to fulfill its promises," Farhan said, "especially in the Sunni areas."

Until recently, children in Jambariyah were housebound. The rural village was so dangerous, American forces hadn't entered it for more than a year.

In Jambariyah, security started improving dramatically after U.S. troops were approached by the village elder, Mayor Saad. He offered to muster local men to help safeguard their community. Insurgents had been paying them $400 to plant a single roadside bomb -- $700 if they would film it for Internet insurgent propaganda sites. American forces agreed instead to pay many of those same men just $300 a month to man checkpoints. That is just one-quarter of the salary of a typical Iraqi police officer.

Here, and elsewhere, the plan worked. The town's main industry returned from planting bombs to planting corn and dates.

"People have started to re-establish and reopen businesses, including a produce market and several other shops," said Lt. Mike Handlan, an American soldier with the 101st Airborne Division, which made first contact with the mayor. "The economy is picking up. We've seen a lot of good progress here."

It hasn't always been easy. After the Sons of Iraq took over, insurgents leveled the town mosque, attacked a main checkpoint with small arms fire three times in four months -- repelled each time -- and fired on Mayor Saad, who escaped without injury.

Saad's mistrust of the government extends even to Shiite leaders.

Sheikh Hassan Ibraheem is a Shiite and leader of a mixed Sons of Iraq group in the northern city of Dujail. He told ABC news more than half of his men used to be armed and fighting against the Iraqi and American forces. Now they secure the town. But even he does not trust the Shiite-controlled government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to follow through with its promises.

"People of the area fear that in that if the need for the 'Awakening Councils' is over and its members are not integrated into the security forces, this would cause a new threat. Young men who lost their job opportunities will join the insurgents," the sheik, who considers himself loyal to Maliki's government, told ABC News. "I trust the central government, but I don't trust the people who work under it, who are controlled by (sectarian) political parties."