By Army Staff Sgt. Margaret C. Nelson
Special to American Forces Press Service
May 16, 2008 - More than 300 former members of "Sons of Iraq" graduated to Iraqi police officers during a ceremony at Kirkuk Police Academy on May 15. The students graduated after eight weeks of training here.
"The Kirkuk province has shown tremendous progress in the last year. Events like this prove we are taking the necessary steps to show the world this province will stand together to defeat terrorists and establish rule of law," Army Col. David Paschal, 1st Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, told the graduating class.
All the graduates are residents of Hawijah district, about 60 miles southwest of Kirkuk city. This area saw the region's worst violence against civilians, Iraq security forces, and coalition forces. Officials reported 10 to 15 attacks daily.
"This is a great day," a student names Badri, 22, said. "I am so grateful to the coalition forces and Lieutenant Colonel Vanek who gave us an opportunity to join our Iraqi security forces and serve our country and our people."
U.S. Army Lt. Col. Christopher Vanek is commander of 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment. The unit's area of operation covers Hawijah district, which has a Sons of Iraq program with more than 7,500 members.
The new recruits will be returning to fill Iraqi police vacancies within Hawijah district, filling a critical need for police there. For many, this milestone is the direct result of the security gains in the region, specifically in Hawijah, which has seen an 80 percent drop in violent attacks since December's inception of the Sons of Iraq program, Paschal said.
"I was once a farmer unable to earn enough to feed my family. I had no choices," Ghafli, 29, another student, said. "I will now return home with my head held high with a job and in a [Iraqi police] uniform."
"I would never have considered becoming an IP a year ago," Badri said.
"And if we did," Ghafli added, "we would never wear the uniform. It was a mark of death."
The students of the predominantly Sunni-Arab graduating class lauded the multi-ethnic environment at the academy. Instructors include Kurdish, Turkman, Christian and Arab ethnicities.
"We took an oath to serve and protect Iraqis. That is what we are, and it is our responsibility to uphold the rule of law. What you are does not matter," Monir, 28, said. "We are all brothers."
(Army Staff Sgt. Margaret C. Nelson is assigned to 1st Battalion, 10th Mountain Division.)