A top American commander called on the Iraqi government to take care of tens of thousands of unemployed anti-al-Qaida Sunni fighters, saying proper treatment for the men is critical for national reconciliation.
The U.S. military's support for Sons of Iraq, who played a key part in subduing al-Qaida, comes at crucial time when a number of checkpoints in Baghdad province manned by the Sunnis will be closed. The U.S. is seeking to ease the group's concerns that the Shiite-dominated government may not honor its pledge to pay them until they are absorbed into national security forces or find civilian jobs.
"We want to make sure that the right things, the things the government has promised, in fact occur," Army Maj. Gen. John Johnson, a deputy commanding general, told The Associated Press during a recent interview.
Many of the Sons of Iraq were former insurgents who later teamed up with the Americans against al-Qaida. The move, known as the Awakening, was credited _ along with the surge of tens of thousands of U.S. troops _ in helping quell the violence.
But the question of what to do with these nearly 100,000 people in the long-term remains. The U.S. handed over control last year of the Awakening Councils to Iraq, which pays their roughly $300 monthly salaries.
"I think it's fair to say the Sunni population, in general, looks to see how the Sons of Iraq are being treated as maybe an indicator of how serious the government is of true reconciliation," Johnson said.
Johnson, who oversees the U.S. role in the transition, said the American military has "a bond" with the Sunni group that obligates it to make sure they are treated fairly.
Under heavy U.S. pressure, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government agreed to absorb up to 20 percent of the fighters into its security forces _ a move the U.S. has said is paramount toward reconciling with its minority Sunnis.
Al-Maliki has repeatedly said he would honor the pledge to pay the Sons of Iraq.
There have been Sunni complaints about missed paychecks and not enough jobs being provided in the security services because of a budget crisis. Earlier this month, al-Maliki told parliament that problems paying the group may have led to security lapses allowing three deadly bombings against government sites in Baghdad.
The closing of some of the Baghdad checkpoints and turning others over to Iraqi security forces is the next key hurdle.
The last of the Sons of Iraq in Baghdad province were scheduled to be absorbed into civil service jobs by the end of the year. But that has been delayed until after the March 7 parliamentary elections due to security concerns, Johnson said.
Other questions remain, including how long it will take to absorb members in other provinces. Though Iraq has pledged to pay the group through 2010, it is unclear how long beyond that they can sustain bankrolling the Sons of Iraq.
Additionally, the U.S. military has been monitoring a string of attacks against the Sons of Iraq. Some 212 of their leaders have been killed in the past two years, according to the U.S. military. The U.S. blames al-Qaida for the attacks.
On Saturday, a roadside bomb west of Baghdad killed a Sunni tribal sheik who fought against al-Qaida, an Iraqi police official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.