BAGHDAD -- Come the New Year, the Shi'ite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki faces an ongoing challenge that will either help bridge the country's sectarian divide or widen it, contribute to security efforts or undermine them.
The test is transitioning more than 25,000 Sons of Iraq (SOI) volunteers in parts of the so-called Sunni Triangle from U.S. control to Iraqi control.
It shouldn't seem a difficult task. The mechanics are already in place. A template for the process was developed and used successfully in Baghdad, where some 50,000 Sunni and Shi'ite guards were transitioned in October.
Yet difficulty lies ahead and it all has to do with the concept of "theka," or trust.
"We don't trust the Iraqi government," says Ahmad Hamid Muhammad al-Jaburi, a Sunni SOI leader in the town of Duluyiah in Salah Al-Din Governorate, north of Baghdad. "They don't trust us, so how can we trust them? We don't think they are serious with us."
They have put their families' lives on the line. They know the consequences if things go wrong.
"In truth we trust Americans more than the Iraqi government," SOI leader Hakim Razak says in the city of Samarra. "The Iraqi government we think belongs to the Iranian government; this city belongs to the Sunni, the Iraq government is Shi'ite."
The sentiments of the two aren't one-offs. They were echoed by security group leaders throughout Salah Al-Din Governorate, where SOI are expected to transition to Iraqi control before summer.
The question of transition, when raised by a reporter in meetings with various group leaders, was met with similar answers and similar nonverbal accompaniments. Eyes took on a look of concern, the clacking of worry beads increased in tempo, the cigarette smoke thickened as heavy smoking became chain-smoking.
Gesticulating increased in proportion to the volume of talk. "We don't know what's going to happen to us," says Muhammad Ibrahim Khalil.
"Al-Qaeda is already trying to assassinate us. If we are disbanded, we're dead men." Sunni Awakening
The Sons of Iraq -- formerly called Concerned Local Citizens (CLC) by the U.S. military -- grew out of the 2006 "Sahawa" (Awakening) among Sunnis in Al-Anbar Governorate. Sunni tribes, some of which had fought U.S. forces for nationalist reasons, rebelled against the foreign-born Al-Qaeda fighters in their communities.
They then made common cause with the Americans, and in 2007 began forming armed neighborhood watch groups under U.S. direction. That mechanism later spread throughout the Sunni Triangle and beyond. In Baghdad, the CLC concept became an integral part of the new U.S. counterinsurgency strategy of clear, hold, and rebuild.
The armed CLCs, by establishing checkpoints in their own neighborhoods, denied access and maneuvering ability to Al-Qaeda and other extremists. They also proved invaluable in obtaining intelligence passed on to U.S. and Iraqi forces.
The program had another benefit as well. By paying the neighborhood guards ($300 monthly for lower-level personnel), employment was created, thus shrinking the extremists' casual labor pool for planting improvised explosive devices.
Iraq's central government, which now acknowledges those contributions, opposed the U.S. program from the start and has wanted to dismantle it, fearing the groups could eventually become an armed threat to its authority.
With Iraq now taking the lead in its security and with the U.S. presence set to diminish, disbanding is now taking place.
Under a U.S.-Iraqi transition program, the government of Iraq is taking over SOI group contracts and will eventually absorb about 20 percent of SOI members into its police and army ranks. Those not chosen for the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) will be given government jobs or undergo paid vocational training.
"The government will not abandon these people," says retired Iraqi Major General Mudher Almaala, who helps oversee the transition process now taking place in Baghdad. "The government will provide employment opportunities for these people...as a reward for their sacrifice and their duties."Wage Worries
But even promises kept can have wrinkles.
Officers of the U.S. Army's 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division say transitioning in East Baghdad has gone well.
In mid-November most of the SOI that transitioned to Iraqi control on October 1 (about 50,000 men) were paid on time by the Iraqi government -- a key concern for the SOI.
Payroll glitches, soon rectified, were ascribed to recipient identification discrepancies -- missing names, misspellings, incorrect identification numbers -- and the fact that Iraqi Army troops, paid at the same time, had precedence.
But that didn't ease the initial anxiety of those whose payments were delayed. Nor did it relieve anxiety over lack of a firm time frame for transitioning to the Iraqi police or Iraqi Army.
SOI in Baghdad -- Shi'ite as well as Sunni -- receive their second Iraqi government paychecks later this month. Then, as before, their U.S.-directed compatriots in other areas of Iraq will be watching closely.
Sons of Iraq chat with U.S. soldiers in Salahaddin Province
"I want to be honest with you," says Sheikh Sadon Radam Hussein al-Kazraji, a Shi'ite SOI leader in an area near the city of Balad in Salah Al-Din Governorate. "There is too much corruption. Maybe they'll pay completely at first, but what about later?"
Complicating the process -- and adding fuel to worry and distrust -- is identifying who is actually a member of the SOI. Members have come and gone and membership lists don't always reflect the changes.
Members, especially those hoping for ISF or government jobs, must be vetted for past criminal activities or past ties to extremist organizations. That takes time. And Iraq only has a limited number of police and army training academies.
In Samarra, for example, it took about six months before U.S. forces won approval for about 700 SOIs to transfer to the Iraqi police. This was done earlier in the year before there was a formal transition process that now involves tens of thousands.
Yet the process is proceeding. SOI in Diyala Governorate, northeast of Baghdad, are expected to transition to Iraqi control as early as next month. According to U.S. military officials, the screening process has already been started by Iraqi's 5th Army Division and the U.S. Army's 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry.
Diyala -- with a mixed population of Arab Sunnis, Arab Shi'a, and Kurds -- could be a challenge. Al-Qaeda is still active in pockets along the province's border with Iran and they would be expected to try to take advantage of any security void a transition may inadvertently create.
Also, actions earlier this year by Iraqi troops have left SOI uneasy. Iraqi military forces in late summer/early autumn, while conducting counterinsurgency operations detained, at least briefly, hundreds of SOI members whose names were on a list of wanted persons. The move came after the provincial council had earlier ousted an anti-SOI provincial police chief appointed by the al-Maliki government without the council’s prior approval.
In Salah Al-Din, a predominantly Sunni province abutting Diyala, worry is palpable. But despite the distrust on the part of its SOIs, there are encouraging signs.
Sunni SOIs in Samarra, at U.S. insistence, are already manning security points with National Police, who are mainly Shi'a. Initial refusal gave way to grudging compliance and now, according to U.S. commanders, there is a degree of cooperation between the SOIs and police that would have been unimaginable just months ago.
"We think we defeated Al-Qaeda here [in Samarra]," Sheikh Khalid Flayeh al-Bazi said. "This is a good reason for the government to come forward and build trust with us. We didn't fight Iraqi forces. We are on their side."
Sheikh Khalid and others fretted that the Iraqi government hasn't consulted them yet on the planned transition for SOI in Salah Al-Din. But that is expected to come as it has in Baghdad, where local SOI leaders, sheikhs, and community leaders were brought into the process.
Sooner will be better than later.
"Trust is incremental," says Lieutenant Colonel P.J. McGee, who has just completed his third tour of duty in Iraq. "I've spent three years here and some of the most scared people I saw were the SOI coming forward to volunteer."
"They have put their families' lives on the line. They know the consequences if things go wrong," and security should deteriorate.