BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Almost 90 percent of the tens of thousands of U.S.-backed fighters who helped purge much of Iraq of Al-Qaeda have been transferred to Iraqi control, the U.S. commander in charge of their program said on March 21.
Major General Mike Ferriter told journalists that around 84,000 members of predominantly Sunni Arab "Awakening Councils" -- neighborhood guard units that were paid by the U.S. military to fight militants -- were handed to Iraqi government authority, and thousands of those had since left the program for other work.
Only about 10,000, all in the northern province of Salahuddin, remained to be handed over in the coming months.
Putting the guards, many of whom were once insurgents who switched sides, on the payroll of a government they once fought is seen as a major test of reconciliation as the United States prepares to pull its combat troops out of Iraq by August 31, 2010.
"The eyes of the world are on you, Iraq, and it's the opportunity to prove that you're going to pull it together...in spite of the many, many doubts," Ferriter said.
Called Awakening Councils or "Sahwa" in Arabic, the units led mostly by Sunni Arab tribal sheikhs began turning against Al-Qaeda militants two years ago in western Iraq's Anbar Governorate, providing a model that was rolled out nationwide.
The guards had been receiving roughly $300 a month from the U.S. military, paid through local tribal sheikhs.
In October, the Iraqi government started paying roughly 50,000 guards in Baghdad.
Since then, the northern provinces of Diyala, Kirkuk, and Nineveh, the southern Shi'ite provinces of Wasit, Babil, and Qadasiya, and in the west, Anbar, have been ceded to the Iraqi government, which will start paying salaries in these provinces at different times between now and May, Ferriter said.
Many former insurgents in the program have feared arrest. Others feared being abandoned by the government, which has promised jobs in its security forces for a fifth of Sahwa members but says it will find civilian work or training for the rest.
Ferriter said the program had defied gloomy predictions, and that Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had kept his word not to detain ex-insurgents or pursue vendettas against them.
"A lot of concerns that we've heard...have not come to fruition," he said. "The concern that...they'd be disbanded or wouldn't get paid or be arrested...haven't occurred."
Questions remain over their long term future. Iraq is committed to finding jobs for the four-fifths who do not get into the security forces, but so far only the Education and Health ministries have vacancies, for 10,000 and 3,000 people, respectively.
The police have taken in 5,000 so far and the army, 500. But Ferriter was upbeat. "It'll take six to seven months to complete the job transition, and I predict success," he said.