Bitterness Grows Amid U.S.-Backed Sons Of Iraq

Sons of Iraq volunteer at a checkpoint in Baghdad in 2008 i i

hide captionA Sons of Iraq volunteer stands guard at a checkpoint in the Azamiyah neighborhood in northern Baghdad in September 2008. The U.S.-backed paramilitary force is credited with helping to defeat al-Qaida in Iraq. Now, its fate hangs in limbo as the U.S. withdraws its troops.

Hadi Mizban/AP
Sons of Iraq volunteer at a checkpoint in Baghdad in 2008

A Sons of Iraq volunteer stands guard at a checkpoint in the Azamiyah neighborhood in northern Baghdad in September 2008. The U.S.-backed paramilitary force is credited with helping to defeat al-Qaida in Iraq. Now, its fate hangs in limbo as the U.S. withdraws its troops.

Hadi Mizban/AP

In the past three weeks, at least 19 members of an Iraqi paramilitary force that was supported by the U.S. military have been killed. Scores more of the so-called Sons of Iraq have been wounded in assassination attempts.

In the province of Diyala, a climate of fear has descended on the men whom many credit for helping defeat al-Qaida in Iraq.

Sheikh Hussam, a member of the Sons of Iraq for the past three years, sits in a small concrete structure with mostly bare walls; the cushions on the floor are thin and scuffed. Hussam has not gotten rich fighting al-Qaida in Iraq.

He says matter-of-factly how he just survived yet another assassination attempt the day before his interview with NPR.

"I was going on duty. I usually take this road, and I was targeted by two roadside bombs," he says.

Graduation ceremony for Sons of Iraq militia at an Iraqi police training center in January 2009 i i

hide captionIraqi police recruits are seen through a banner during a 2009 graduation ceremony for members of the Sons of Iraq at a police training center in southern Baghdad. The government agreed to either integrate the militiamen into the armed forces or give them civilian jobs.

Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images
Graduation ceremony for Sons of Iraq militia at an Iraqi police training center in January 2009

Iraqi police recruits are seen through a banner during a 2009 graduation ceremony for members of the Sons of Iraq at a police training center in southern Baghdad. The government agreed to either integrate the militiamen into the armed forces or give them civilian jobs.

Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

The Sons of Iraq became a powerful force in 2007, at the height of the "surge" of U.S. forces. Former militants and tribal leaders, predominantly Sunni Muslims, turned against al-Qaida and fought alongside the Americans.

Now, the exit of American troops is under way. In 2009, the fate of the Sons of Iraq was left in the hands of Iraq's Shiite-dominated coalition government, which agreed to pay the men and eventually either integrate them into the armed forces or give them civilian jobs.

But scores have been arrested over the past year by the government, says Hussam, while others have fled the country, leaving a sense of bitterness among the remaining Sons of Iraq.

"The security forces have hit at the Sons of Iraq, detained them, insulted them using sectarian words, and taken their weapons without any reason and without a warrant. The future of the Sons of Iraq, in my opinion, is either that al-Qaida kills us or we end up in jail," he says.

The Sons of Iraq still man checkpoints in Diyala province alongside the police and the army, but many complain they are no longer receiving their salaries.

Ahmed Hussein Ali works at one checkpoint, checking IDs and looking through the trunks of cars.

"For the record, we have more than 50 people who have not gotten paid. Their names all of a sudden were not on the list. Frankly speaking, the situation is bad," he says.

And there are fears that the situation may get even worse.

Across town, another militia leader, Haji Khalid, says that it is unclear if the new government will keep its promises to the Sons of Iraq. Political parties in Baghdad are locked in bitter negotiations over who will get to form the next government, and no one knows yet who will come out on top.

"For sure we are worried. If a patriotic government is put in place, our position will be assured. But if an unpatriotic one is put in power, the Sons of Iraq will be threatened. This is beyond question," he says.

Sons of Iraq leaders say they don't know who is behind the assassination attempts. They say it could be remaining elements of al-Qaida in Iraq seeking revenge. Some allege Iranian agents are responsible.

The U.S. military maintains that Sons of Iraq deaths are on a downward trend. In April and May this year, 36 militia members were killed. During the same period in 2009, there were 41 killings. In the worst of the fighting with al-Qaida, about 130 Sons of Iraq were being killed every two months

Still, for militia member Sheikh Hussam, who has been targeted repeatedly, the statistics offer small comfort.

"The Americans did not betray us. They sentenced us and our families to death. They supported us in fighting al-Qaida, but then suddenly they left us caught between two enemies — al-Qaida and Iran. That is America's legacy here," he says.

And he says he does not expect to survive the next time someone tries to kill him.

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