U.S. transfers power in Iraqi province to group of former insurgents

Monday, January 5, 2009

BAQOUBA, Iraq -- In a province northeast of Baghdad, the U.S. military handed over control Sunday of the Sons of Iraq, a predominantly Sunni group of former insurgents and tribesmen whose revolt against al-Qaida in Iraq significantly boosted security.

U.S. and Iraqi officials hailed the transfer in Diyala province as a step toward reconciliation.

But some group members at the handover ceremony in the Iraqi portion of a large military base were wary, saying they feared control by the Shiite-led Iraqi government could put them in jeopardy.

The Sons of Iraq movement began in Anbar province west of Baghdad in 2006 when its leaders became dismayed by al-Qaida in Iraq's brutality and religious zealotry and apparently by the amount of foreign influence in the group. The revolt later spread to other regions.

The United States paid the group's estimated 90,000 members nationwide about $300 a month. Eventually, the members are to be either integrated into the Iraqi military and police or provided civilian jobs and vocational training.

Under the phased handover, which began last year in Baghdad, Iraqi authorities will continue that pay and education strategy. Last year, Iraqi authorities demanded the handover in Diyala take place in January, despite U.S. concerns that the date was too early for a province with an explosive mix of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been suspicious that the Sons of Iraq is a ploy by Sunni insurgents to gain time and money to regroup.

Nonetheless, officials at the handover ceremony in a bare and unheated hall on the base 35 miles north of Baghdad portrayed the change as positive.

"Today is a historic day as we see the manifestation of the reconciliation process of these men back into Iraq," said U.S. Maj. Gen. Robert Caslen, the commander of coalition forces in northern Iraq. He praised the Sons of Iraq, saying "they stood in the gap between evil and the Iraqi people."

"We were known to be the heartland for terrorism ... with our sons we were able to ensure our security," said Diyala Governor Ra'ad al-Tamini.

Roughly 9,000 Sons of Iraq member have been registered in Diyala. Iraq is also taking control of the group in three other provinces in January, and groups in the remaining provinces will be transferred by April.

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