The Uncertain Future of the Sons of Iraq

This piece first aired in December, 2008, as part of the show, “Fitting In.”

Listen here.

    HOST: This is War News Radio. The Sons of Iraq program got its start in al-Anbar province in late 2005, when Sunni tribal leaders turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq and allied with the Americans. Today, nearly 100,000 Sons of Iraq work in nine of Iraq’s provinces to secure their neighborhoods for a monthly salary. The program is credited with reining in violence over the past two years, but planners in the U.S. and Iraq are starting to ask a crucial question — what now? Elizabeth Threlkeld has more on the Iraqi government takeover of the Sons of Iraq, and the reconciliation efforts aimed at employing and integrating them within the rest of Iraqi society.

    ELZABETH THRELKELD: Adhamiyah is one of Baghdad’s storied old neighborhoods. Before the war, it was a fairly prosperous Sunni area, but longtime resident Sheikh Riyadh Hadi Muhsin says that by 2006, everything had changed.

    RIYADH HADI MUHSIN: I’m the son of Adhamiyah, and this has been the home of my father and grandfather. However, I couldn’t live there. My brother was killed, my house was blown up by al-Qaeda, my uncle’s house was set on fire. There was absolutely no life in Adhamyiah. The only people who could live there were al-Qaeda and those who support them. Everyone else had to leave. Shops cannot open for more than two hours, no one can work, the only vehicles that move in the streets were al-Qaeda vehicles.

    ELZABETH THRELKELD: Musin fled his longtime home for Syria, but in September 2007 he returned to Adhamiyah at the request of an old friend. The head of security for a prominent Sunni group called Muhsin to invite him to fight back against Al Qaeda in Adhamiyah with a group that would become the neighborhood’s Sons of Iraq. For two months they gathered information on local militants, and, in November 2007, they launched an offensive to take back the neighborhood. The Adamiyah Sons of Iraq have captured 423 al-Qaeda fighters in a little over a year, but the results were evident long before that.

    RIYADH HADI MUHSIN: After three months of our work, people started returning to their homes, families who were displaced by terrorists, by the killings and destruction in the neighborhood. Now, Adhamiyah is one of the busiest districts in Baghdad, crowded, and lots of traffic going through.

    ELZABETH THRELKELD: Originally it was the Americans who provided support to the Sons of Iraq and paid their salaries. But beginning in October of this year, the Iraqi government took control of the Baghdad program as a part of the ongoing handover to the Iraqis. Raad Ali Hassan, a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Iraqi Army and the leader of the Ghazaliyah district’s Sons of Iraq says the Shi’a-led government didn’t share the American’s enthusiasm for the program.

    RAAD ALI HASSAN: After we had started working to secure the neighborhood, not one single Iraqi official paid a visit to the Sons of Iraq. From day one, the Iraqi government was against this project. Two days after we started our work, the Iraqi state TV channel started attacking us, and calling us terrorists. We were also subject to harassment from the Iraqi army, police, and government officials.

    ELZABETH THRELKELD: Muhsin, the Sons of Iraq deputy leader in Adhamiyah, is frustrated by changes since the Iraqi takeover.

    RIYADH HADI MUHSIN: After they became in charge of the Sons of Iraq, they rewarded us by closing down our headquarters in Adhamiyah. This is how the Iraqi Army rewards us. I called the Americans about this, and they told me that the Iraqis closed down your headquarters, not us. Where do I go now? My deal was with the Americans. It’s been two months since our headquarters were shut down. But some people still go there thinking that we could deliver their complaints to the authorities. Now, they have to contact the Iraqi army. To do that, it will take them three to four days to actually be able to file a complaint. When our office was open, it took people three minutes to file their complaints.

    ELZABETH THRELKELD: Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Kulmayer, the U.S. Chief of Reconciliation and Engagement in Iraq, says the Sons of Iraq program was never intended to be permanent. He oversees the program’s transition to Iraqi control, and he’s focusing on finding meaningful employment for Baghdad’s 51,135 Sons of Iraq.

    JEFFREY KULMAYER: Much of the effort is going to have to go to the Iraqi government itself, so we’re working with Multi-National Force Iraq and the Embassy to dialogue with the ministries to create jobs. I think the government is going to end up making most of these Sons of Iraq public servants, and try to put them into different ministries and municipalities or on public works projects. The bottom line is they’re committed to providing them employment and they say we’ll do that whether it takes us two years or two months.

    ELZABETH THRELKELD: According to quotas set by the Iraqi government, approximately twenty percent of Baghdad’s sons of Iraq will be incorporated into the country’s security forces. Most Sons of Iraq are hoping to land jobs in the Iraqi Police or Army. Virtually all of Hassan’s men will end up in the Iraqi Police – 100 were just accepted, and he will send another 100 soon. That’s unusual given the percentages set by the government, but he says Coalition forces are pressuring the Iraqi government to incorporate more Sons of Iraq into the Police and Army in order to balance the majority Shi’a security forces. Still, there are problems. A dozen of Hassan’s men who had joined the police quit after they were harassed by their Shi’a Commander at the local station, whom they say is in the Mahdi Army. Muhsin says he’s also had a few men leave the Iraqi security forces after being stationed in one of Iraq’s most dangerous cities.

    RIYADH HADI MUHSIN: About 150 of our men volunteered for the National Police. After they graduated, we were surprised that they were sent out to Mosul. When they first joined the Police, they were promised to work in Adhamiyah or close by. Now, there are national police training courses, but nobody is volunteering because they are worried that they will be sent to Mosul or other parts of Iraq. We joined to protect our district.

    ELZABETH THRELKELD: And there’s another problem for Sons of Iraq hoping to join the Iraqi Police – corruption. Before any of Hassan’s men could join, they each had to pay a bribe to get their name added to the official list. He explains in English.

    RIYADH HADI MUHSIN: If they ask about who can help them to be IPs [Iraqi Police], they say okay, go to this guy and make deal with him. You can pay to him about 700 dollars. Then he promise him that in one month, his name will show up, and he can go to training and he will be IP. You don’t have any way to be IP unless this way. It’s illegal, but that’s the way.

    ELZABETH THRELKELD: But according to the government quotas, eighty percent of the Sons of Iraq won’t find jobs within the security forces. Instead, they’ll take on civilian jobs, either working within the Iraqi government or in the private sector. Job creation in Iraq is a serious problem, where estimates peg unemployment rates at between twenty and fifty percent. Lieutenant Colonel Kulmayer says that job training projects will be key to providing Sons of Iraq with vocational skills they can use.

    JEFFREY KULMAYER: The average Iraqi wants to stand on a street corner and hold a gun — that gives you a lot of pride here. But I think these men’s wives are gonna kick them out the door in the morning and say you’re not getting paid to be security anymore, so get out there and start fixing pipes. Because that’s where the paying job is. What we have to convince them of is you’re not longer needed for security, you’re needed to get out there and rebuild your country.

    ELZABETH THRELKELD: Hassan, the Sons of Iraq leader in Ghazaliyah, says that four of his men are enrolled in training program learning to repair generators. But they worry about finding a job after graduation.

    RAAD ALI HASSAN: The idea is great, the idea is great. But they need someone to take care of them after they finish their training. They should give them a job in some place. So I think it is very necessary now of the government to give them any guarantee about that.

    ELZABETH THRELKELD: Major Timothy J. Reed, who oversees the facility, says the Rasheed Training Center is beginning to address this issue. Contractors in the district are potential employers, and there’s also the possibility of micro-grants for students who to start their own business. Employment managers tasked with funding jobs for released Iraqi detainees will also assist the Sons of Iraq. For now, many of Baghdad’s Sons of Iraq are left playing a waiting game. Hassan knows his men are frustrated by not knowing what their future holds.

    RAAD ALI HASSAN: These are all part of the psychological tensions and breakdowns my men are feeling. Several of my officers have reputedly asked to leave the Sons of Iraq, but I convinced them that it is not the right thing to do. They’d be easy targets for al-Qaeda. And if the Iraqis and Americans do not fulfill their promises, I think the results will not be good. And I don’t think anyone in Iraq wants to go back to square one, to chaos and sectarian infighting.

    ELZABETH THRELKELD: The handover of all of Sons of Iraq is set to be completed by June 2009. The next step will come in January, when the Iraqi government is set to take control of the 8,000 Sons of Iraq in Diyala province – one of Iraq’s most dangerous. It wasn’t the original plan, but Iraqi Prime minister Nouri al Maliki requested the transfer of Diyala’s Sons of Iraq, and the U.S. is cooperating. For War News Radio, I’m Elizabeth Threlkeld.

UA-84569-1