By Adam Weinstein
Special to American Forces Press Service
Dec. 30, 2008 - Along with a new year, Iraq is ringing in an important step toward national reconciliation Jan. 1 when the nation's government takes over control of the "Sons of Iraq" citizen security groups from coalition forces in four key provinces across the country, including Diyala. In all, 76 percent of the nation's Sons of Iraq members will be under Iraqi government responsibility by New Year's Day.
"We are beyond the tipping point with the Sons of Iraq," Army Lt. Col. Jeffrey Kulmayer, chief of reconciliation and engagement for Multinational Corps Iraq, said. "They have invested in the future of Iraq, and the Iraqi government is offering them hope in the future. They're going to be part of that."
The transfer marks a dramatic turnaround in Diyala province in particular, officials said.
"Diyala is a small Iraq," retired Iraqi Army Maj. Gen. Muzhir al-Mawla, vice chairman of the Iraqi Follow-Up Committee for National Reconciliation, said. Home to Kurds as well as Sunni and Shiia Iraqis, the region is more varied than Baghdad, where Sons of Iraq members already have been transferred to Iraqi control.
In 2007, the mostly Sunni area northeast of Baghdad had been considered one of the most dangerous provinces in Iraq, and it lacked the infrastructure to support many basic services for its residents. As al-Qaida in Iraq targeted innocent men, women and children in areas such as Diyala, concerned local citizens joined a movement called the "Awakening" and organized neighborhood watches to roll back terrorist gains in their communities.
The following year, the movement's members, who came to be known as the "Sons of Iraq," joined forces with the coalition to fight al-Qaida in Iraq. The addition of more than 100,000 Sons of Iraq members helped to thicken the security forces and enabled the improved security environment experienced today, officials said.
"They have been critical to finding caches, bringing down [improvised explosive devices], keeping al-Qaida out of the towns, because they know everybody," Kulmayer said. "They know who's who in their towns and villages."
Now, after helping to bring greater stability to the region, 20,000 Sons of Iraq members in Diyala, Babil, Wasit and Qadisiyah provinces will have opportunities to serve their country in new roles. In early December, they began to register with the Iraqi government to receive regular paychecks.
As responsibility for the Sons of Iraq transfers to the government Jan. 1, the group's members will transition into a variety of meaningful jobs intended to secure the nation's future. Twenty percent are slated to join the Iraqi Army or police, and the rest will enter public or private employment in a variety of roles, from civil engineering to electrical maintenance to working in the government's multiple ministries, officials said.
"The goal of this program is to eventually hire these people into meaningful jobs," Army Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin III, commander of Multinational Corps Iraq, said. "While many of them are working in security positions right now, ultimately they'll transition and go into other meaningful jobs, and that's the goal."
So far, the Sons of Iraq and the government have interacted well, confirming that this is "the leading edge of reconciliation," Army Maj. Gen. Michael Ferriter, deputy commander of Multinational Corps Iraq, said.
"The Sons of Iraq feel as if they're being taken care of," Austin said. "They're apprehensive, but that's to be expected. This is new, and building trust takes time."
In the past three months, more than half of the country's Sons of Iraq already have been transferred smoothly to Iraqi control, including all the group's members in Baghdad. Registration in Anbar province is nearly complete, in preparation for a Feb. 1 transfer to Iraqi control. Ninevah, Kirkuk and Salahuddin provinces are scheduled to transfer in early spring. Authorities said a rehearsal of the Diyala transfer Dec. 23 went off without a hitch.
"Diyala is considered to be a very complex province, but in fact, the registration of the [Sons of Iraq] has gone very well," said Kulmayer, adding that nearly 9,000 Sons of Iraq members in the province will register with the government. "We have a very large turnout there. It's exceeding the expectation of how many would come in and register."
Civil Service Corps projects continue to be the main focus of nonsecurity job efforts, with more than 4,100 Sons of Iraq currently enrolled in various apprentice programs. Iraqi-led jobs programs for the Sons of Iraq, such as corps and public works projects, remain in development. The Iraqi government also is looking at opening a number of job-training centers around the country to address the needs of unskilled members.
"Those results have come about because of determined leadership," Austin said.
At the end of the day, Ferriter said, all parties are on the same page.
"We have a common goal: We don't want the Sons of Iraq to turn to al-Qaida," he said. "The coalition forces don't want that; the Iraqi prime minister doesn't want that. Together, we'll make this work."
(Adam Weinstein works in the Multinational Corps Iraq public affairs office.)