Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images
Members of the U.S.-backed Neighborhood Patrol Awakening Council stand guard in the Sunni district of Adhamiya, north of Baghdad, last month.
Members of the U.S.-backed Neighborhood Patrol Awakening Council stand guard in the Sunni district of Adhamiya, north of Baghdad, last month. Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images
At the beginning of next month, the Iraqi government is due to take control of a large group of Sunni paramilitaries who have played a major role in reducing violence in the country.
The American military has been paying and supervising these men, and now Iraq's Shiite-led government has promised to incorporate at least 20 percent of the militiamen into the state security forces and find civilian jobs for the rest.
Some Sunni militia leaders, however, are not convinced, and they are warning that the transition may not be a smooth one.
Working With The Americans
Sunni paramilitaries check all the cars that enter the Baghdad neighborhood of Fadhil. They are the gatekeepers to a place that looks post-apocalyptic — some buildings have been completely pulverized by bombs and others are so riddled with bullets that they resemble rotting logs bored into by an army of termites.
At a nearby mosque, Khalid Ibrahim, the local militia leader, holds court. A former colonel in Saddam's army, he was part of the insurgency until 2007 when he switched sides, allying himself with the Americans against al-Qaida in Iraq.
Since then, the American military has been his chief backer.
But the recent deal the U.S. struck with the Iraqi government has left Ibrahim angry and uneasy.
"They should have consulted us before taking any decisions so we could have given our opinion," Ibrahim says. "Instead they have treated us like a commodity that can be moved at will from one place to another."
On Oct. 1, the government of Iraq will take over supervision and payment of the Sunni paramilitaries in Baghdad, known collectively as the Awakening Movement or the Sons of Iraq.
The U.S. military had been giving each member about $300 a month.
Ibrahim suspects, though, that the Shiite led government of Nouri al-Maliki wants to ultimately disband the force.
"The aim is to get rid of us," Ibrahim says. "Why? Because of the upcoming provincial elections and then national elections. They fear that we will get power."
Targeting Sunni Leaders
For the past few months, the Iraqi government has targeted leaders of these Sunni groups, putting them on arrest lists. The Iraqi government claims the men are wanted for continuing criminal activity. The Sunnis insist it is politically motivated.
While the U.S. military is promising that the Sons of Iraq will be protected under the new management, leaders like Ibrahim say they are keeping their options open.
"In the future, if we do not notice any serious cooperation from the Iraqi government side we will walk out," Ibrahim says. "That small salary will not make us compromise our values and principles."
Ibrahim says there are more men under his control than the 160 on the books. His group, he says, will never disappear.
"We allowed them to register 160 of my men in order not to embarrass the Americans," Ibrahim says. "But that number is like a drop of water in a huge sea. We've told the Americans that as long as you are true to us, we will be true to you, so we gave them this to satisfy them."
Ibrahim warns the Iraqi government and the Americans that there will be consequences if he and his men continue to feel under threat.
Outside the mosque, children play in a fetid green stream of sewage, and Ibrahim takes a visiting reporter on a stroll through the neighborhood.
It is hard to tell if the people of the Fadhil area are happy with the paramilitaries in control or if they want the Iraqi army and police.
Security is much improved, but with the blessing of the U.S. military, the rule of law kept by these former insurgents is brutally imposed — so much so that a shopkeeper refuses to answer a question about the situation in the area, obviously afraid.