BAGHDAD (AFP) – Iraq’s Shiite-led government is to take control of the mainly Sunni Arab militia that have spearheaded the fight against Al-Qaeda, the US military said on Thursday, triggering renewed debate over their future status.
The government of Iraq and coalition forces have agreed in principle to transfer all 100,000 “Sons of Iraq” from October 1, US military spokesman Major John Hall told AFP.
The US military uses the term Sons of Iraq or “SoIs” to refer to the militia, also known as Awakening or Sahwa Councils, which it has recruited from among Sunni tribesmen and former insurgents to fight Al-Qaeda.
“The transfer will start with the Baghdad province, with the other provinces following at a later date,” Hall said.
He said Baghdad alone has around 54,000 Sahwa members under contract to the US military, and these are expected to be transferred to the government on October 1.
“The first payment by the government of Iraq will be November 1, 2008. The current average monthly cost of these 54,000 SoIs is 15 million dollars,” Hall said.
The rest are spread across Sunni areas of central, western and north-central Iraq.
The first Sahwa Council was established in Anbar province, west of Baghdad, in September 2006 and quickly ousted insurgents loyal to Al-Qaeda.
The scene of some of the US military’s deadliest battles in Iraq, the province is now considered one of the safer in Iraq and on Monday became the first mainly Sunni Arab province to returned to Iraqi control.
Building on the success of the Anbar force, the US military has since recruited a raft of such militias across Sunni areas of Iraq and they now have some 100,000 fighters at their disposal.
But the official sponsorship of such armed groups among the Sunnis has sparked concern or outright opposition among many Shiites, who have insisted that their fighters must be integrated into the mainstream armed forces.
Defence ministry spokesman Major General Mohammed al-Askari said that the Iraqi government was no more minded to tolerate Sunni irregulars than it was to accept Shiite militias like the Mahdi Army of radical leader Moqtada al-Sadr.
“We are not going to allow new armies. There are opportunities for them to join the army, police or civilian jobs,” Askari told AFP. “Otherwise it can be a new militia and we are fighting militias.”
Leading Kurdish MP Mahmud Othman said that the future status of the Sahwa fighters was likely to pose a “challenging” problem for the Shiite-led government amid its efforts to bring about national reconciliation after the sectarian bloodshed of recent years.
“The Shiite government looks at them as a political enemy. It sees them as Arab Sunni fighters who were former Al-Qaeda or insurgents fighting the government and they have to be punished,” Othman said.
“Sahwas also will not be very satisfied… maybe some will go back against the government.”
Othman said the government had been demanding for the past 12 months that the Sahwas be handed over.
“It has been arguing that once the Americans leave the Sahwas could turn into militias. It wants to handle them from right now,” he said.
Sahwa fighters themselves spoke of reluctance in their ranks at being brought under the control of the Shiite-led government.
“We don’t mind cooperating as long as they cooperate with us,” said Ali Abdul Jabbar, a Sahwa commander in the Baghdad Sunni district of Adhamiyah.
“Some of us will refuse to be part of the new arrangement but we will do our best to persuade them,” he told AFP.