BAGHDAD — The Shiite-led Iraqi government Wednesday took command of 54,000 Sunni fighters here in the capital in a U.S.-backed effort to ease sectarian mistrust and offer Sunnis a stronger stake in the country's future.
The fighters, known as the Sons of Iraq, were the first wave of what is expected to be 100,000 Sunni Muslims nationwide to join the army, police and other government agencies. Many fighters, however, feared that they would be marginalized and discriminated against in a nation with a high unemployment rate, rigid sectarian allegiances and a Shiite Muslim majority.
The Sunni Arab militiamen had been under the authority of U.S. forces. Their cooperation was crucial to curtailing support for Al Qaeda militants and calming insurgencies in Anbar, Diyala and other provinces. The U.S. paid each Sunni fighter $300 a month -- about the same amount the Iraqi government is expected to pay.
"The government affirms its commitment to integrate the members into public life so that they take part in building Iraq," government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said in a statement.
The U.S. is keen to ensure that happens, fearing a breakdown could lead to renewed hostilities between Sunnis and Shiites. Some leaders of the Sons of Iraq feel that the transition represents a betrayal by the U.S. The government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki also questioned the Sunni fighters' loyalty to Iraqi forces and whether it can provide jobs and training for all of them.
"We won't leave the Sunni fighters to an obscure fate," said Abbas Bayati, a Shiite member of parliament. Only 20% of the fighters will serve in the military and police; the rest will get other government jobs or retraining as mechanics, carpenters or other skilled workers.
"We hope that they show patience, since their numbers are large, and we will need longer time in order to sort them out and rehabilitate them," Bayati said. "The government will determine the paths and will incorporate them."
The Iraqi government is concerned that its military may be infiltrated by Sunnis who have separatist aims. U.S. officials recently said the Iraqi government is entitled to arrest fighters it considers a threat to the nation's fragile stability. This stability will determine the government's ability to secure the country and the pace of the U.S. troop drawdown as Iraqi military and police forces assume wider responsibility.
Times staff writer Saif Hameed contributed to this report.