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With U.S. presence fading in Iraq, ex-militia faces uncertain future

BAGHDAD — Ali al Ghreri has traded his militiaman's gear for a crisp suit, slick loafers and a rakishly skinny tie. He makes his money now not as a hired gun of the U.S. military but as a contractor overseeing construction projects across Baghdad.

Beneath his polished exterior, however, serious worries stalk Ghreri, a leader of the Sunni Muslim Arab militia known as the Awakening, which helped U.S. forces turn the tide against the al Qaida in Iraq insurgency a few years back.

The government jobs that Ghreri's militiamen were promised when Iraqi forces took over security operations two years ago have been slow in coming, the salaries skimpy and irregular. Many in the Shiite-led Iraqi army and police view them with suspicion. Worst of all, their enemies in al Qaida in Iraq continue to pierce the country's deceptive calm to target them in deadly revenge attacks.

"When responsibility for the Sahwa transferred from the Americans to the Iraqis, we started suffering," said Ghreri, using the Arabic word for "awakening" and the common name for the movement.

With Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, preparing to form a new government and the U.S. military scheduled to withdraw its remaining troops by the end of 2011, the fate of the Sahwa looms as one of the toughest tests of Iraq's ability to transcend sectarian rivalries and the raw wounds of the civil war.

Few in Maliki's government are enthusiastic about the Sahwa, which formed when Sunni tribal leaders and former insurgents rose up in opposition to al Qaida in Iraq's brutal tactics. When the U.S. military began paying some 95,000 of them upwards of $350 a month in 2007 to provide security in their neighborhoods, many Iraqi officials were skeptical, regarding them as "thugs at best and Sunni terrorists at worst," as the International Crisis Group research agency wrote in a recent report.

"When America started reaching out to Sahwa in 2006 and 2007, basically they were told, 'You're part of Iraq; we want you in the political order,' " said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert with the International Crisis Group. "For them, this (new government) is the litmus test: Are they in or are they out?"

Two years ago, American forces handed over the program to Maliki's government, which pledged to integrate 20 percent of the fighters into the security forces and place the rest in government jobs. Iraqi officials say that nearly 40,000 have been employed, but Sahwa leaders argue that many hundreds of former fighters have walked out of their jobs after going months without salaries or because they found the work demeaning.

Now diminished in size, the Sahwa feel more vulnerable than ever, trapped between a government they feel mistrusts them and Sunni insurgents who want revenge. The International Crisis Group reported that about 40 Sahwa leaders were arrested last year on charges that ranged from terrorism to illegal weapons possession, while more than 200 have been assassinated.

Many Sahwa leaders say they regret telling their members to apply for government jobs and wish they'd return to protect their neighborhoods.

"Al Qaida reactivated when the Americans withdrew," said Sheikh Mahmoud Yaseen, a Sahwa leader in Tarmiyah, a rural area north of Baghdad. Two dozen of Yaseen's fighters have been killed in the years since U.S. forces ceded control of the program.

"We need the men who were moved to the government to come back," Yaseen said. "I used to have 500 men and now I have only 62. I used to run seven checkpoints and now I have only one. Our situation is weak and al Qaida is growing bigger."

Zuhair Chalabi, the Iraqi official in charge of Sahwa integration, acknowledged delays and said that job placement had been suspended until after the new government formed. He didn't dispute the notion that some government officials viewed Sahwa members with suspicion.

"If some employees have this idea that these people are terrorists, it's their personal point of view. We have to educate them that this is not true," Chalabi said. "Integrating the Sahwa is a government project that everyone agrees on."

Yet the attacks have continued. In July, at least 43 people were killed when suicide bombers attacked a military base southwest of Baghdad where Sahwa members had gathered to receive paychecks that were five months late. On Monday in Baqouba, the capital of restive Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, gunmen struck the homes of two Sahwa members in separate attacks, killing two children, police officials said.

"Our leaders and fighters fought terrorists and al Qaida and they deserve better than this," said Mustafa Kamil Shibib, the leader of Sahwa in southern Baghdad. "Maliki made promises to Sahwa men, but how far he is willing to keep his promises, only God and Maliki know."

In September 2007, Gen. David Petraeus, then the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, asked for Shibib's help in restoring order to insurgent-plagued southern Baghdad. Although his neighborhood is calmer now, Shibib — who still wears a gun and an ammunition belt — said that Sunni insurgents had planted bombs under his cars three times this year.

Shibib's nephew, Dia Obaid, dropped out of school and picked up a weapon when insurgents began overrunning his Baghdad neighborhood. He was 16 when he joined the Sahwa. Now, Obaid said, he doesn't trust Iraqi security forces and hopes that his former patrons in the U.S. military can help him move to America.

"There is no place for us in Iraq anymore," he said. "The U.S. has abandoned us."

In recent months, Iraqi officials have grown worried that disgruntled Sahwa members might rejoin the insurgency. U.S. military officials played down the possibility, and six Sahwa leaders whom McClatchy interviewed denied that their fighters had defected.

Ghreri, however, said that many of the fighters were young men who'd struggle to find work in Iraq's weak economy and that the government salaries, even when paid, were less than they'd earned from the U.S. military.

"Definitely, yes, there could be those who would join" al Qaida in Iraq, Ghreri said. "If they don't have jobs and they need money, they would be tempted."

In a report last week, the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy warns that American forces had served as Sahwa's guardians and that without them its loyalties would be tested.

"These groups still trust the American military to defend their interests," the report says, "and it is unclear what their fears might drive them to do absent the U.S. presence."

(Special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed to this report.) MORE FROM MCCLATCHY:

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