U.S. Spending Millions to Retrain Ex-Iraqi Rebels

U.S.-backed Sunni neighborhood watches are eager to become official members of the Iraqi security forces. The United States is spending millions to retrain the former insurgents, hoping to keep them productive members of society.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Cohen.

MADELEINE BRAND, host

I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up, who is Sarah Marshall? The online campaign behind the film "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" is pretty clever, but will it actually get people to see the movie?

But first...

COHEN: They are known as the Sons of Iraq. Nearly 100,000 strong, many of them were insurgents who once targeted U.S. forces. Now they work for the American government. These mostly Sunni fighters get 300 dollars a month to man checkpoints throughout Iraq. As NPR's Tom Bowman reports, the challenge is trying to find them permanent jobs and paychecks from the Iraqi government.

TOM BOWMAN: South of Baghdad more than 15,000 of these Sons of Iraq are helping Colonel Dominic Caracillo keep the peace.

Col. DOMINIC CARACILLO (U.S. Army): And we have under our purview 780 Sons of Iraq checkpoints, which help thicken our lines to ensure the population is protected from the insurgency.

BOWMAN: And the colonel's Iraqi counterpart Brigadier General Ali Jassim says some will be accepted into the Iraqi police. He spoke through a translator to Pentagon reporters.

Brigadier General ALI JASSIM (Iraqi Army): (Through Translator) Over 3,000 people received approval by the Prime Minister Malki so that they will be integrated into the police forces. And they have been vetted, and they have been given training so that they could join the police forces.

BOWMAN: Across the country there are more than 100,000 Sons of Iraq, but no more than 20 percent are being accepted into the police force and army. The question is what will happen to the other tens of thousands when the security contracts run out with the American government? Lou Lantner thinks he has the answer.

Mr. LOU LANTNER (Leader, Provincial Reconstruction Team): One area that we're working on right now is setting up a vocational technical school. We call them voc-techs. We intend to have courses offered that will train people to work at some of the factories that now exist in our area of operations.

BOWMAN: Lantner runs a provisional reconstruction team in the area. These PRTs are groups of American experts trying to rebuild the economy. This is now a major project for both the Americans and Iraqis. How to shift these one time Sunni insurgents into the economy, convince them they have a place in the new Iraq being run by a Shi'ite dominated government, so they don't once again pick up a gun and point it toward American or Iraqi forces. The Americans are putting in 150 million dollars to help train Sons of Iraq to become plumbers, electricians, computer repairmen. The first of several hundred students are expected to start training in the coming weeks.

Ms. MICHELLE FLOURNOY (Defense Analyst, Center for Strategic and International Studies): There is a lot of vocational and job training in the works.

BOWMAN: Michelle Flournoy just returned from a two week trip to Iraq at the invitation of Ground Commander General David Petraeus. She was a Pentagon official in the Clinton administration, and now is a defense analyst. Flournoy thinks job training is a good idea, but says more of these Sons of Iraq will have to be accepted into the security forces.

Ms. FLOURNOY: Some of them come from security backgrounds. They've been in some form of security job, protecting their community, or in some cases they've been insurgents who've come back over, but they're not going to want to go become the satellite TV repairman or the computer guy. They want to be accepted as members of a security force.

BOWMAN: Just last week Prime Minister Nouri-Al-Malki held a reconciliation conference in Baghdad pledging that all Iraqis will have an equal place in society.

Prime Minister NOURI AL-MALKI (Iraq): (Through Translator) National reconciliation isn't as some may think, a gain for one side and a loss for another, or sharing of interests and influence on the basis of quotas and incorrect entrenchment. Rather, it's a gain for the homeland, and represents a lifeboat that carries Iraq to safety.

BOWMAN: But some Sunni lawmakers felt there was no room for them in that lifeboat. They walked out of the conference. One reason, not enough of these Sons of Iraq were being accepted into the Iraqi security forces. Again, Michelle Flournoy.

Ms. FLOURNOY: I think it's very important for the government to accept more than the 20,000 or so that they've pledged to accept. I think if they are not more fully integrated they will see that as evidence of lack of willingness towards reconciliation, lack of fairness on the part of the central government.

BOWMAN: But there's no indication that the Shi'ite dominated government is willing to do that. They have concerns about the loyalty of these gun-wielding Sons of Iraq if they become part of the Iraqi forces, and there are doubts among some Pentagon officials whether the Iraqi government will ever come through with paychecks for the former Sunni insurgents, even if they're factory workers or computer repairman. If that's the case, American taxpayers may continue to foot the bill for the Sons of Iraq. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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