The scars left by the violence that ravaged the Fadl district of central Baghdad are everywhere in this former Sunni Muslim insurgent bastion. The balconies are collapsed, and the building columns, decimated by gunfire, look like chewed apple cores. Garbage is strewn throughout the streets, and there's little or no electricity.
There is, however, a measure of security for the first time in years, and the U.S.-backed Sunni militia that was stood up here, known as the Sons of Iraq or Awakening Councils, say it's the reason for the change.
“Even the friendly (U.S.) troops could not liberate this area,” said Khaled Jamal al Qaisi, a colonel in Saddam Hussein's army and the commander of the Sunni militia in Fadl, as he proudly walked the streets of his neighborhood.
Al Qaisi and the other roughly 100,000 men of the mostly Sunni paramilitary groups – which were formed by U.S. troops after tribal sheikhs in Anbar province turned against al-Qaida in Iraq and quieted a province once thought lost to insurgents – are now in a delicate balance.
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The security gains of the past year – violence in Baghdad is down by 85 percent – are far from secure, although American politicians claim that President Bush's surge of additional U.S. troops has put the United States on a path to victory in Iraq. Unemployment in Sunni areas remains high, basic services are still poor, distrust of the United States and the Shiite-led Iraqi government is widespread and fears of Shiite militias persist.
On Wednesday, al Qaisi and 54,419 other men in Baghdad province will transition to Iraqi government control. That's more than half of the Sons of Iraq (SOI) who are now being paid by the U.S. military to protect neighborhoods – and in some cases not to shoot at American troops.
In its quarterly report on security in Iraq, released Tuesday, the U.S. military found that integrating SOI is one of that nation's biggest security obstacles. It called the slow transition “a concern” and said, “… the integration and employment of SOI remains a significant challenge.”
The Sons of Iraq worry that going under the control of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a ploy to detain and disband them. SOI leaders in the northern province of Diyala are hiding in neighboring Syria. In Baghdad, only 3,400 Sons of Iraq have transitioned into the security forces, and barely any have entered the Iraqi army or national police.
Al Qaisi swears that he won't report to the Iraqi Army, despite the fact that he and his men are among the 50,000 or so Sunni militiamen who gave their names to the Iraqi government for registration.
A man with a gruff face and a sharp tongue, al Qaisi said he speaks for a series of armed groups and for some 30,000 men across the country who once fought American troops and the Iraqi government. He's an ally of the U.S. military now, but if he's betrayed, he'll become an enemy of the Americans again, he said.
The U.S. government has put backstops in place, said Army Lt. Col. Jeffrey Kulmayer, who is responsible for the program. Currently the plan is to transition the men on Oct. 1, and the Iraqi government has promised to pay their salaries, currently about $300 a month apiece, until they find “meaningful employment.”
If the Maliki government doesn't pay the mostly Sunni Arab men, the United States is prepared to continue paying the men until the Iraqi government does, Kulmayer said. U.S. officials also have asked the Maliki government not to act on arrest warrants that are more than six months old.