A man in a dusty track suit elbowed his way through the crowd that had formed as soon as U.S. soldiers pulled up in this war-damaged village on Baghdad’s southern outskirts.
The man, who gave his name as Nasir, told the soldiers that he used to earn a living as a wedding singer. But the masked gunmen who took over Hawr Rajab in the name of their austere version of Islam considered such work sacrilegious and burned down his house.
When the Sunni Arab villagers decided to fight back with the help of U.S. forces, Nasir said, he was one of the first to sign up for the $10-a-day paramilitary work. So he was less than pleased when he was informed last month that security had increased to the point that his services as a gun-for-hire were no longer needed.
“I don’t want to make trouble,” he told the soldiers urgently. “I just want to live my life, and I need work.”
After five years of trial and error, the strategy of recruiting tribesmen to help defend their neighborhoods against Islamic extremists has proved one of the most effective weapons in the U.S. counterinsurgency arsenal.
But restoring a measure of calm to what were some of the most violent places in Iraq has in turn presented the U.S. military with one of its biggest headaches: what to do with the more than 80,000 armed men whose loyalty has been bought with a paycheck that cannot go on forever.
“We don’t want to pay people to stand on street corners with guns if they don’t need to be there. What we want to do is we want to get them into a transition to more gainful employment,” said Army Col. Martin Stanton, who oversees the effort.
After months of U.S. entreaties, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s Shiite-led government grudgingly agreed in December to hire a portion of the mostly Sunni Arab fighters for the official security forces. But the process of vetting and approving the job candidates is painfully slow -- some say deliberately so -- and less than a third of them are expected to qualify.
U.S. and Iraqi officials are now hammering out details of a plan to revive local economies and create new opportunities for the fighters through vocational training, public works schemes, farm revitalization programs, micro-grants and business start-up loans. The two governments have committed $155 million apiece to the projects.
But these are long-term strategies, and the fighters need jobs now. If not, many openly declare they will have no choice but to work for the insurgency, which has tried to lure some of them back with offers of more money.
Already, cracks are appearing in what one senior official describes as the central plank of the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy. Hundreds of Sunni guards abandoned their posts for weeks last month in the Diyala provincial capital, Baqubah, demanding the replacement of a provincial police chief, a Shiite Muslim they accused of brutality against Sunnis. Errant U.S. airstrikes, which have killed a number of the fighters, prompted a similar walkout in Jurf al Sakhar, south of Baghdad.
Sunni Arab tribesmen first approached the U.S. military in Anbar province in 2006 for help in driving out the Islamic extremists they once backed.
When commanders saw how effective the tribesmen were, they began using the power of the dollar to court allies in other insurgent bastions where residents had grown disenchanted with the militants’ ideology and brutality. The U.S. military has signed contracts worth $143 million with the tribesmen, which it now calls Sons of Iraq, to help guard roads, bridges and other key infrastructure.
U.S. commanders say the three-month deals were never intended to be more than stopgap measures in areas where U.S. and Iraqi forces did not have the numbers to provide security. But the fighters argue that they have proved their worth and deserve permanent jobs.
Adding urgency to their demands is a mounting death toll among the guards, as Sunni insurgents take aim at the neighborhood security groups that threaten their networks. Shiite militiamen also have attacked the guards in some areas. But though the Iraqi government will make so-called martyr payments to the families of slain Iraqi soldiers and police officers, there is no such provision for the guards.
A senior guard leader in Baqubah estimated that as many as 450 members, mostly Sunnis, had been killed in Diyala province alone, a key battleground in the fight against the Sunni militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq and its affiliates.
“These people have sacrificed for Diyala,” said the leader, who goes by the nickname Abu Talib. “They shouldn’t just be dropped.”
The village of Hawr Rajab in Diyala in many ways epitomizes the work of the guard program. Four months ago, U.S. soldiers found headless bodies in the largely deserted streets. Now, many residents who had fled in fear are back, and the village bustles with activity.
American soldiers are handing out micro-grants to help businessmen repair their stores and buy stock. Seed and plastic have been distributed to farmers. An Iraqi contractor is revamping the clinic and building classrooms. And there are plans to convert the abandoned shoe factory into an ice-making plant by the summer.
“Men with weapons can only provide so much security,” said Lt. Col. Mark Solomon, who commands the U.S. cavalry squadron responsible for the area. “The rest has to come from governance and economic growth.”
Security has improved to such a degree that Solomon decided to shift 200 of the 500 villagers employed as security guards to a pilot public works crew, to provide much-needed services.
Nasir, the unemployed wedding singer, readily agreed to join the new program. But it has not been easy to persuade the proud tribesmen to trade in their AK-47s for trash bags and brooms. Some were wealthy landowners under Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led regime. Many hold university degrees.
“I graduated from the teaching college. I don’t want to sweep the streets,” said Daoud Salman, a tall man in traditional Arab robes.
Salman, a father of four, said his former comrades-in-arms laugh at him when they see him picking up trash and burning reeds to clear canals supplying water to farms.
He isn’t the only one disgruntled with the job switch. On a recent drive through the village, most of the workers energetically sweeping the streets with palm fronds were younger than 15, many of them the children of men killed in recent fighting.
“The older ones don’t work,” said Adil Abbas Khodier, who is in charge of the program. “They all want to be sheiks.”
This month, U.S. Air Force technicians began teaching a class of 50 from the public works crew how to become builders, masons, electricians and plumbers, skills they can put to work repairing the village’s nearly 100 damaged homes. Once they qualify, their salaries will go up to about $15 a day, while those for the guards will drop to about $8.
But despite the pay incentive, most of the fighters tell their tribal leaders that they would prefer to remain on the checkpoints or to join the police, the only reliable source of local employment.
About 10,000 guard members have been absorbed into the police force in overwhelmingly Sunni Anbar, where there was a virtual security vacuum until the tribesmen rebelled against the Al Qaeda in Iraq extremists in their midst. But authorities in Baghdad and other religiously mixed parts of the country have been more resistant to the idea of bringing Sunni guards into the largely Shiite police force. So far, they have accepted fewer than 8,000 applicants.
The country’s Shiite leaders are suspicious of the Sunni fighters, who include many former insurgents, and want them carefully vetted before allowing them into the official security forces.
There is a limit to how many can join the local police force. The army, on the other hand, has space, but most of the fighters aren’t interested in a military career because they want to stay close to their families.
Hawr Rajab’s leaders have been pressing authorities in Baghdad for a police station and have collected 700 applications. But with a population of less than 10,000, the village does not qualify to have its own station, a district official informed them last month.
‘Government is too slow’
If villagers want to become police officers, the envoy in a crisp suit and polished shoes told a smoke-filled room, they will have to work in neighboring Abu Dasheer, a mostly Shiite village that is a stronghold of the feared Mahdi Army militia. Fighters from the two villages have clashed for years, and occasional shots are still fired between them.
A stunned silence fell over the room.
Ali Majeed Msir was one of two tribal sheiks who launched the guard program in Hawr Rajab. Because of his family’s stand, he says, insurgents killed his father, stole the family’s money and slaughtered its cattle.
He now chairs a council set up to run the village since the insurgents fled, an unpaid group that is campaigning for recognition from higher levels of government.
“This project is successful right now . . . but the government is too slow,” Msir said glumly, pulling a pair of dark sunglasses over his eyes.
If the government won’t take care of his men, he said, they might have no choice but to return to the battlefield.
“We want to be part of the government,” he said. “But if the government keeps refusing, we will have to be a militia.”