WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated government faces a major credibility test next week when it begins to take over U.S.-backed Sunni Arab patrols that include former insurgents, a top U.S. general has said.
Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, said the U.S. military would closely monitor how the government treated the tribal fighters, who he said had played a big role in reducing violence in Iraq to four-year lows.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government is due to take control of 54,000 fighters in Baghdad Governorate next week from the U.S. military.
It has viewed the groups, known as Awakening Councils or Sons of Iraq, with suspicion as they include many former Sunni Arab insurgents who fought to oust the government before agreeing to work with the U.S. military in late 2006.
"This is a significant opportunity for the government to demonstrate to the Iraqi people and to the rest of the world that it is serious about reconciliation and honoring its promises to the sons of Iraq," Austin told reporters at the Pentagon via video link from Iraq. "It is important that the government of Iraq responsibly transition them into meaningful employment."
There are deep divisions between Iraq's majority Shi'a and minority Sunni Arabs, who were politically dominant under Saddam Hussein, and the government has been repeatedly criticized for failing to foster reconciliation.
A total of 99,000 fighters, who mainly patrol neighborhoods and man checkpoints, across the country who would be gradually transferred to Iraqi control, Austin said.
Under the transition plan, 20 percent of those fighters will be absorbed into the Iraqi security forces, while the remainder will be given civilian employment or training.
Sunni Arab leaders have expressed unhappiness with the quota and want more fighters employed in the security forces.
Iraqis fear that if al-Maliki mishandles the transition, disgruntled fighters could turn their guns on the government and trigger a new wave of sectarian bloodshed.
Hundreds of thousands of people were killed after the bombing of a revered Shi'ite shrine in the Iraqi city of Samarra in February 2006 that was blamed on Sunni Arab militant group Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
"Prime Minister Maliki has assured me the government will help those who help the people of Iraq," Austin said. "We will not abandon the Sons of Iraq. We will continue to follow up in the future to ensure that they get paid and transition to meaningful employment."
Austin said the Iraqi security forces had grown in confidence and capability, but were not yet ready to take over full security of the country.