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A delicate hand-over in Iraq

Sunni fighters leave the U.S. payroll for the Iraqi army's, despite lingering suspicion among ruling Shiites.

November 11, 2008|Ned Parker and Tina Susman | Parker and Susman are Times staff writers.

BAGHDAD — The young man stamped his foot, the customary salute to higher officers, handed over his torn identification card and signed his name in a ledger. He pressed a thumbprint in blue ink next to it, and an Iraqi military officer handed him a fat roll of pink-and-green dinar notes.

He counted the money and handed back the change.

So began the final step Monday in an important transition for the Sunni paramilitary fighters known as the Sons of Iraq, who previously had been paid by the U.S. military.

As they lined up outside Baghdad military bases, a triple bombing in the eastern part of the capital killed 31 people and wounded 72, police said. A female suicide bomber also killed two civilians and two Sunni paramilitary fighters in the eastern city of Baqubah, police said. The bloodshed was a reminder of the suicide attacks that plagued Iraq before many Sunni fighters chose to forsake radical militant groups for an alliance with the Americans in 2007.

Iraq's ruling Shiites still view the fighters with suspicion. The hostility reflects the deep mistrust between the country's newly assertive Shiite majority and the onetime Sunni elite, who are angry about their fall from power. If the government alienates the Sunni paramilitary fighters, who number nearly 100,000 countrywide, the fighters could restart their insurgency.

But as the U.S. military prepares to start pulling out of the country, responsibility for the Sons of Iraq was transferred to the Iraqi army. The payments Monday marked the last step in the transition.

"Today's a tremendous day," said Brig. Gen. William Grimsley, deputy commander of the Army's 4th Infantry Division, whose area encompasses Baghdad. He and other U.S. military officials played down concerns expressed by many of the Sunni paramilitary members that the Iraqi government might renege on vows to find them jobs in the future. "We're not worried, necessarily, but it's something we all need to watch long-term," Grimsley said.

The first of the paydays is taking place at 36 stations in west Baghdad. All 21,000 of the paramilitary members in the area controlled by the Iraqi army's 6th Division are to be paid by next Monday.

In coming weeks, the rest of the fighters in Baghdad will be paid, followed by those in Diyala, Anbar and Babil provinces.

Rank-and-file Sunni fighters and their leaders are deeply suspicious of the intentions of the Iraqi army and government. Since the summer, prominent Sons of Iraq leaders have been arrested, gone into exile or been threatened publicly by Shiite government leaders. In the west Baghdad district of Khadra, senior members have walked off the job in protest over the transition.

On Monday, fighters groused about a cut in pay, in some cases from $350 a month under the U.S. to $300 now.

In west Baghdad's Ghazaliya district, off a residential street with palm trees and chocolate-colored houses, hundreds of the fighters gathered in a line and waited to be called inside the tombstone-like blast walls of a U.S.-Iraqi military compound.

Under the leadership of a former officer in Saddam Hussein's special forces who identifies himself as Col. Raad, more than 100 Sons of Iraq members have been placed in the police force in this neighborhood.

Ghazaliya's Sunni paramilitary began as a way for the U.S. military to counter the influence of both the Sunni-dominated insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Mahdi Army militia, made up of Shiites. Through the summer of 2007, the Iraqi army was thought by Sunnis and U.S. officers to be tacitly aiding the Mahdi Army as it spread into Sunni sections of Ghazaliya.

Raad, a onetime insurgent, fought the Americans in 2003 and 2004 and spent most of 2005 in Abu Ghraib prison, but became one of the group's leaders after his release. On Monday, he sat side by side with the Iraqi army commander and watched as his men were paid, studying the list of names.

He has 80 men set to go into the police academy next month, with 176 to follow later. But he says the Iraqi government will allow officers in the Sons of Iraq to join only as beat cops or enlisted soldiers.

Raad worries that once he stops working with the Americans, Shiite political parties might have him arrested. Even so, he said he was happy that his men were joining the Iraqi police force.

Some of the rank and file expressed suspicions as well.

Arkan Mudher Hamid, in line waiting to be paid in the neighborhood of Amiriya, said he had joined up to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq but that he and two others in line with him believed they were being passed over for jobs in the security forces for sectarian reasons.

"It's gotten to the point where we need a final word -- will we be hired or not?" he said.

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ned.parker@latimes.com

tina.susman@latimes.com

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