During General David Petraeus’ testimony to Congress on the progress of the war in Iraq, he referred to the great security gains of the last year, which largely hold even in the face of clashes between Shia militias and government forces in Sadr City, Basrah, and much of the South. General Petraeus credited a substantial portion of those security gains in many areas of Iraq in the last year to the duel phenomena of Sahawa (Awakening) councils and the formation of local security teams from out-of-work men fed up with violence.
The Anbar Awakening started in Ramadi as armed opposition to al Qaeda in Iraq. The movement grew and morphed into a political and military movement that expanded throughout Anbar and swept west, north, and south throughout the largely Sunni areas of Iraq. As the Awakening Councils formed, they raised paramilitary security forces with assistance and instruction from the Coalition forces in their respective towns.
In some areas these local security fighters were directly raised and employed by a town’s Awakening Council; in others, local security groups developed on their own without a connection to the Awakening movement. As the trend spread, Coalition commanders began to adopt the local security model to provide jobs and protection for the Iraqi people in their areas.
At the beginning, the names of different security groups were as mixed as the outside opinions of them. The first local security fighters appeared in Ramadi and Fallujah, where cynical soldiers called them the “Good Bad Guys.” As the trend grew, Americans in other areas dubbed groups “Concerned Local Citizens” or “Neighborhood Watch”; Iraqis in Baghdad called themselves “Knights of the Two Rivers.”
Local forces were variously lauded as patriots and vilified as opportunistic militiamen. American civilian leaders and the press worried that the military was “arming both sides in a civil war.” Many military leaders appreciated the extra temporary security, but worried what would happen when the local forces were inevitably asked to stand down in favor of Iraqi government forces.
Almost a year has passed since the rise of the local security forces, which now number more than 91,000. The Government of Iraq refers to all armed groups contracted by the Coalition as “Sons of Iraq” regardless of origin, and has stated the intention of integrating about 20 percent into the security forces and disbanding the rest when they are no longer needed for security.
The security situation has changed in the year since the embryonic Sons of Iraq took their first stand against violence. Al Qaeda is a still dangerous but largely beaten dog, while Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army, especially the Iranian-backed Special Groups, has become the focus of the Government of Iraq.
During his testimony to Congress, General Petraeus hinted at the ongoing plans to transition these local security forces into the Iraqi Army, Iraqi Police, and unspecified other sources of employment, but he gave few details of how that will be done.
With the security situation improving daily, especially in Sunni towns, within sight is the future that worried so many at the beginning of the grass-roots level movement: What will these fighters do when the Coalition tells them it is time to put their guns down and go home?
Many formerly dangerous al Qaeda strongholds have been cleared of fighters and have extensive reconstruction and development programs underway. Many towns no longer need large contingents of Sons of Iraq to guard their villages. Some towns and neighborhoods, such as Hit and Hadithah in Anbar province, and some neighborhoods in Baghdad, no longer need any Sons of Iraq at all.
Some of the Sons of Iraq were professionals, farmers, even businessmen, that took up arms to protect their lives and property. Others will have nowhere to go and no way to make money when their security services are no longer needed. Many are teenagers who have grown up with their educations destroyed by the war, who are now looking at a bleak, impoverished future.
The US military is encouraging the Government of Iraq to accept large numbers of former Sons of Iraq into the Iraqi Police and Iraqi Army, but that raises several problems. There is already a shortage of officers and noncommissioned officers in the Army, and adding large numbers of untrained soldiers will do little to improve the situation. The Iraqi Police will not accept candidates to the police academy unless they are literate, and many young Iraqis are not.
Furthermore, the government has a measured plan to rebuild national security infrastructure and stand up security forces across the country, and under the plan some towns could wait years before they get a local Iraqi Police unit. In the meantime, Coalition forces are doing the best they can to help prepare Sons of Iraq for eventual service in the Iraqi security forces, be it Iraqi Army or Iraqi Police. Coalition forces are also turning Sons of Iraq into public works workers and technicians instead of gunmen.
In Anbar province, where the Sons of Iraq have existed the longest, many have already moved on to new employment in the security forces and elsewhere. Closer to Baghdad, the focus is still on training the Sons of Iraq to do their job effectively, while preparing them for an eventual transition.
Transitioning: Sons of Iraq in Arab Jabour
Arab Jabour is a broad expanse of farmland that lies between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers just south of Baghdad. Until late last year, Arab Jabour was a hotspot, a stronghold of al Qaeda in Iraq. Coalition forces cleared the region during the troop “surge” and began the process of reconstruction, starting with establishing Sons of Iraq and local governance.
Now, the region is in a sustainment and development mode. Reconstruction is taking place on all levels, from the ice cream shops to the factories. Some Sons of Iraq patrol alongside Iraqi Army soldiers and American troops, while others hone their skills with trainers.
In the Arab Jabour region, the trainers are the 153rd Military Police Company of the Delaware National Guard. The 153rd does not conduct weapons training for any local forces, but they cover just about every other basic operation performed in Iraq, whether by US forces or Iraqi. They train Sons of Iraq in a broad assortment of security skills, such as how to operate a vehicle checkpoint, how to conduct personal and vehicle searches, survival techniques, war fighting ethics, and escalation of force. They also teach hand-to-hand combat techniques so the Sons of Iraq understand how to defend themselves at close quarters.
Much of what the 153rd teaches to the Sons of Iraq will be points for examination if and when they attend the Iraqi Police Academy or move on to Iraqi Army training. Staff Sergeant Bruce Ashby of the 153rd considers himself and his men to be building the Iraqi security forces up from the bottom with their work among the Sons of Iraq.
While some American soldiers teach military skills to active Sons of Iraq across the Arab Jabour region, other Americans prepare to train former Sons of Iraq in construction and technical skills.
Hawr Rajab is a town in the Arab Jabour region just south of Baghdad that showcases the challenges posed by the inevitable transition from the US-backed paramilitary Sons of Iraq to the end state of Iraqi government control and US withdrawal. There are around 5,000 residents in Hawr Rajab; the community is mainly agricultural with a small amount of industry. There are currently 500 men serving as Sons of Iraq in and around the town.
Hawr Rajab is unique in that it is home to a trial program that will train and transition Sons of Iraq from a security force into skilled laborers. If the program is judged to be successful, it will become a model for other areas across Iraq.
As the first step of the transition program, US Air Force construction engineers of the 557th Expeditionary “Red Horse” Squadron built a $13 million facility next to Patrol Base Stone, the small US outpost in Hawr Rajab. The complex will house the squadron and a large team of interpreters while they train former Sons of Iraq. There will also be classrooms for teaching and a dining facility.
The “Village of Hope,” as the school is now called, will graduate a class of 50 men every three months, after training them in a variety of disciplines. Instructors cover basic skills in masonry, concrete, general construction, plumbing, and electricity. Trainees are graded on a pass or fail basis, and receive a certificate of completion and hiring preference on projects in the village once they graduate.
Red Horse trainers recently assembled the first training class at the Village of Hope. While in training, each man will be paid $10 a day, about the same as a Sons of Iraq member. After graduation, workers will receive $15 a day for helping rebuild the village. That money was not enough for about 10 of the first 30 men who showed up; a man named Ahmed protested that he had gone to school in Baghdad as an electrician and could make that much fixing one circuit.
In truth, the Village of Hope is not meant for men like Ahmed, but rather for the 20 who stayed, men who have no useful skills with which to make a living. Most of the first class was young; many were under the age of 20 and had received very little formal education or training in a trade. These young men will be the ones to rebuild the shattered homes, businesses, and schools of Hawr Rajab.
Hawr Rajab itself is called the Village of Hope by one of its leading sheikhs, and hope is indeed a powerful motivator. It will be in Hawr Rajab that we will learn whether the grand experiment with local security forces will succeed, for the primary measure of success in this is for the armed guards to be willing and able to return to a peaceful existence.
This, then, is the future of the Sons of Iraq: Having established security in their towns and villages, those that had jobs will return to them. Those who prefer to remain an armed assurer of the security of Iraq will move on to the academies and boot camps of the security forces, and those that remain will gain the skills they need to reverse the destruction of war.