By Adam Weinstein
Special to American Forces Press Service
May 21, 2009 - Iraqi government representatives gathered with leaders of the "Sons of Iraq" civilian security group in a packed theater here May 19 to field questions from the men and respond to their concerns about the program's progress. About 400 sheiks and respected elders from around the country took helicopters or vehicle convoys into the International Zone to attend the conference, hosted by the government's Implementation and Follow-up Committee for National Reconciliation.
"The Iraqi government is very proud of the Sons of Iraq," Muhammad Salman, chairman of the reconciliation committee, said in a speech to the leaders. "We give you a lot, and you deserve it."
A litany of government speakers rose to detail the program's triumphs and challenges. They covered a variety of issues, from the payment process to recent arrests of some Sons of Iraq leaders to long-term government hiring of the group's members.
"We encourage the government of Iraq to be very transparent, very open about what's going on," said Army Maj. Gen. John D. Johnson, deputy commanding general for operations for Multinational Corps Iraq, the coalition command that oversaw the Sons of Iraq before they were transferred to full Iraqi control earlier in the spring. "The whole purpose of this meeting today is to share information. I think you'll see the [committee] doing more of this in the future," he said.
Most of the information requested by the sheiks involved payments for their workers. Monthly salaries for some of the Sons of Iraq have experienced delays in recent months due to a number of organizational issues, Khalil al-Rubayi of the reconciliation committee said.
Changes to the national budget in February temporarily left the program without funding for Sons of Iraq salaries, and it has taken some time to catch up with the payments. In addition, some men have slipped through the cracks, as their rosters are cross-checked by the Iraqi government for errors, Rubayi said. When several sheiks came forward with lists of men who they said were owed salaries, RubayI and his colleagues explained the process to apply for back pay.
"We are willing always to work with the [Sons of Iraq] in a positive way to get them the pay they deserve," Rubayi said.
At the same time they are rectifying pay problems, the government officials continue to work with their security forces and ministries to ensure the Sons of Iraq all get the long-term job opportunities they were promised. The committee members also said they would continue to work with coalition and Iraqi security forces to carefully consider every case in which an arrest warrant is issued for a Sons of Iraq member.
The government also asked the tribal leaders for their help.
"The way forward will require the efforts of everyone," said Muzhir al-Mawla, a reconciliation committeeman, said, referring to the Iraqi army units that directly oversee most of the Sons of Iraq contracts. "We have done a good job, but there is big responsibility ahead."
(Adam Weinstein works for Multinational Corps Iraq.)