HAWR RAJAB, IRAQ — A man in a dusty track suit elbowed his way through the crowd that had formed as soon as U.S. soldiers pulled up in this war-damaged village on Baghdad's southern outskirts.
The man, who gave his name as Nasir, told the soldiers that he used to earn a living as a wedding singer. But the masked gunmen who took over Hawr Rajab in the name of their austere version of Islam considered such work sacrilegious and burned down his house.
When the Sunni Arab villagers decided to fight back with the help of U.S. forces, Nasir said, he was one of the first to sign up for the $10-a-day paramilitary work. So he was less than pleased when he was informed last month that security had increased to the point that his services as a gun-for-hire were no longer needed.
"I don't want to make trouble," he told the soldiers urgently. "I just want to live my life, and I need work."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, March 22, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Iraqi hired guns: An article in Friday's Section A about Sunni Arab fighters hired as neighborhood guards by the U.S. military said the Iraqi village of Hawr Rajab was in Diyala province. It is in Baghdad province, on the southern outskirts of the capital.
After five years of trial and error, the strategy of recruiting tribesmen to help defend their neighborhoods against Islamic extremists has proved one of the most effective weapons in the U.S. counterinsurgency arsenal.
But restoring a measure of calm to what were some of the most violent places in Iraq has in turn presented the U.S. military with one of its biggest headaches: what to do with the more than 80,000 armed men whose loyalty has been bought with a paycheck that cannot go on forever.
"We don't want to pay people to stand on street corners with guns if they don't need to be there. What we want to do is we want to get them into a transition to more gainful employment," said Army Col. Martin Stanton, who oversees the effort.
After months of U.S. entreaties, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's Shiite-led government grudgingly agreed in December to hire a portion of the mostly Sunni Arab fighters for the official security forces. But the process of vetting and approving the job candidates is painfully slow -- some say deliberately so -- and less than a third of them are expected to qualify.
U.S. and Iraqi officials are now hammering out details of a plan to revive local economies and create new opportunities for the fighters through vocational training, public works schemes, farm revitalization programs, micro-grants and business start-up loans. The two governments have committed $155 million apiece to the projects.
But these are long-term strategies, and the fighters need jobs now. If not, many openly declare they will have no choice but to work for the insurgency, which has tried to lure some of them back with offers of more money.
Already, cracks are appearing in what one senior official describes as the central plank of the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy. Hundreds of Sunni guards abandoned their posts for weeks last month in the Diyala provincial capital, Baqubah, demanding the replacement of a provincial police chief, a Shiite Muslim they accused of brutality against Sunnis. Errant U.S. airstrikes, which have killed a number of the fighters, prompted a similar walkout in Jurf al Sakhar, south of Baghdad.
Sunni Arab tribesmen first approached the U.S. military in Anbar province in 2006 for help in driving out the Islamic extremists they once backed.
When commanders saw how effective the tribesmen were, they began using the power of the dollar to court allies in other insurgent bastions where residents had grown disenchanted with the militants' ideology and brutality. The U.S. military has signed contracts worth $143 million with the tribesmen, which it now calls Sons of Iraq, to help guard roads, bridges and other key infrastructure.
U.S. commanders say the three-month deals were never intended to be more than stopgap measures in areas where U.S. and Iraqi forces did not have the numbers to provide security. But the fighters argue that they have proved their worth and deserve permanent jobs.
Adding urgency to their demands is a mounting death toll among the guards, as Sunni insurgents take aim at the neighborhood security groups that threaten their networks. Shiite militiamen also have attacked the guards in some areas. But though the Iraqi government will make so-called martyr payments to the families of slain Iraqi soldiers and police officers, there is no such provision for the guards.
A senior guard leader in Baqubah estimated that as many as 450 members, mostly Sunnis, had been killed in Diyala province alone, a key battleground in the fight against the Sunni militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq and its affiliates.
"These people have sacrificed for Diyala," said the leader, who goes by the nickname Abu Talib. "They shouldn't just be dropped."
The village of Hawr Rajab in Diyala in many ways epitomizes the work of the guard program. Four months ago, U.S. soldiers found headless bodies in the largely deserted streets. Now, many residents who had fled in fear are back, and the village bustles with activity.