The Iraqi government will not turn its back on the men who paid in blood for the country's fragile peace, said the officials on stage in the ballroom at Baghdad's al-Rasheed Hotel, referring to U.S.-paid Sunni militias.
But the leaders of the so-called Awakening Councils listened warily. “I don't trust a word they said,” one said afterward.
The Shiite-led Iraqi government is due to take control of the 99,000-strong militias Oct. 1, absorbing 20,000 into the police and army, and providing jobs, schooling or vocational training for the rest.
For almost two years the Pentagon paid men in the mainly Sunni group at least $300 a month each to fight al-Qaida and other Sunni extremist groups. They were key in breaking the terrorist group's stranglehold in parts of Anbar and Diyala provinces and still face kidnappings, executions and suicide bombings there.
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But the recent alliance was not entirely comfortable at all times for any of the parties.
Many of the rank and file from the U.S. military and Iraqi security forces were at first reluctant to fight alongside men who, before they were put on payroll, sometimes tried to kill them. Last month, U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus said the Iraqi government had been deliberately slow bringing them into the security forces here.
On the other side, Awakening fighters fear prosecution for past crimes, and question whether the government will make good on its promises.
There have been many promises, and on Thursday the officials reiterated them.
“The government has ordered that monthly salaries be paid until we can put (Awakening members) into security forces or the ministries,” said Gen. Abud Ganbar, the Baghdad operations commander. “Payments will continue until they find jobs.”
U.S.-paid fighters who register with the government office for disarmament and merging of militias will be paid, said that office's head, Khaleem al-Rubaiee.
Awakening men cannot be immune from prosecution, said Mohammed Salman of the national reconciliation committee, but the government will not permit vendettas against them inside or outside the courts. “The coming days will prove the extent of our commitment,” he said.
The Awakening leaders were not optimistic.
“The leaders of the Awakening never expected the Americans to leave them in such a time,” said Firas Qaasim Khalef, commander of 475 men in the al Amil neighborhood of western Baghdad.
“I see this will be a big mistake,” said Naji Rahal, commander of 400 men in Taji. Over the years, 14 of his men have been killed, 23 injured, and six had their homes destroyed. Some of his men now wear police uniforms, but they have not been put on permanent staff, and he distrusted the leadership.