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Experts fear integration of former insurgents threatens Iraq's security

As part of Iraq's ongoing quest for national reconciliation, some 90,000 former Sunni insurgents will be installed in security and government jobs by mid-2010. Some experts fear the move may undermine stability.

A militant scans the area in the city of Buhriz, north of Baghdad

Thousands of Sunni militants switched sides to fight al Qaeda

The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq may have ultimately deposed the regime of Saddam Hussein and ended decades of brutal suppression but in the immediate aftermath of Saddam's overthrow, the invading forces and the people of Iraq faced a new terror.

Despite the installation of a new Iraqi government, albeit propped up by Washington and governing from behind heavily-fortified walls, sectarian violence began raging on the streets of Iraq's cities soon after the former Ba'athist regime was deposed. Inter-religious bloodshed between Shias and Sunnis, and violent rivalries within these communities, threatened to plunge Iraq into civil war.

In addition to this, the US and its allies faced a growing insurgency fuelled by al Qaeda's exploitation of the Shia-Sunni spilt. Members of the Sunni Muslim movement, also known as Sahwa, or Awakening, joined foreign fighters in their jihad against the occupying forces and the battle for supremacy in Iraq's communities.

Tens of thousands were killed in the violence which followed the invasion, with as many as 100 people reportedly being killed every day in sectarian violence during 2006. In the strategy rooms of Baghdad's Green Zone, the question of how to stop the violence left many US officials searching for ideas.

Buying loyalty turns the tide

Sunni insurgents guard the streets of Fallujah, Iraq

The US-led invasion paved the way for the insurgency

"If we look back at Iraq during the period of 2006-7, it is clear that the political process in Baghdad had stalled, and that the conflict between Sunnis and Shias had begun to take hold of both society and state in an alarming fashion," Prof. Gareth Stansfield, a Middle East expert at Chatham House, told Deutsche Welle.

"Large swaths of territory had fallen out of the control of the government and the coalition forces, with al Qaeda-associated groups being very prominent in areas between Baghdad and Mosul," he said. "In short, these insurgents were well supported, organized, mobilized by opposition to what was seen as a Shia-dominated goverment, and increasingly durable.

The US desperately needed a way to realign them, as they could not be defeated, and this was done by embracing a process of 'rehabilitation'. This process involved buying insurgents away from al Qaeda and into the service ostensibly of the state, but in reality paid directly by the US."

"Insurgents were 'rehabilitated' by convincing them to turn against al Qaeda and form their own militias, which the US then supported with salaries and weapons," Marina Ottaway, an Iraq expert at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in Washington, added. "There was not an effort to reeducate them. The Iraqi government is now paying salaries, but only some of the Awakening Council's members - those militant groups who swapped sides to fight al Qaeda - have been integrated in the armed forces."

The promise of a regular monthly wage helped lure many Sahwa fighters away from al Qaeda and was the basis for integrating former insurgents into neighborhood patrols. These so-called "Sons of Iraq" collected around $300 (211 euros) a month to switch sides in a move which many consider the turning point in the sectarian war and the insurgency.

Integration program brings more militants in from the cold

An Iraqi policeman stands guard next to a Sunni mosque in Baghdad

Former militants have been integrated into Iraq's police

Now, in 2010, about 15,000 Sons of Iraq occupy positions in Iraq's security forces while another 33,000 have been integrated into other government ministries. Now paid by the Iraqi government, which took over responsibility for their salaries in October 2008, more Sons of Iraq are expected to be integrated by the middle of this year.

"I think by the middle of 2010 all of the Awakening groups will have their jobs and start their professional lives," Mohammed Salman, chairman of Iraq's Implementation and Follow-up Committee for National Reconciliation, told a press conference this week. Another 40,000 former insurgents are expected to join the nearly 50,000 already rehabilitated into government and security positions through the Sahwa integration program.

Read more about the rehabilitation of Iraqi insurgents

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