When Sons of Iraq grow up


Click the image to view the slideshow of the Sons of Iraq in Hawr Rajab at the “Village of Hope.”

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.



  • Mark Pyruz says:

    Politics aside, perhaps the Hezbollah Shia model should be cited here. Hezbollah’s roots were that of young men fed up with a deteriorated security problem and a foreign occupation. Later, it was able to encompass a huge social welfare organization and even enter into legitimate national politics. Perhaps if the Sunni Sons of Iraq can manage it, certain aspects of the model of Hezbollah could possibly be emulated, successfully .

  • Jim Davidson says:

    I don’t think it’s possible to put politics aside when discussing Hezbollah. Especially since the Iranians have been using Hezbollah members to help the Quds force train the Mahdi Army and the Special Groups to become the defacto Iraqi version of Hezbollah.
    The aim of Iran is to have the kind of disruptive force in Iraq that they are funding now in Lebanon. This is in part, the reason that Maliki has chosen to go after the Mahdi Army and the Special Groups (now referred to in reports as ‘criminals’.) prior to the October elections.
    While Maliki is much maligned in the press for the sloppy planning of the operation it is having the effect of identifying those in the Iraqi Army sympathetic to the Mahdi Army. These individuals are being fired from the Army.
    On the other hand, Al-Sadr is being isolated from the Mahdi Army which is being captured or killed in significant numbers.
    Al-Sistani, the supreme Shiite religious leader in Iraq is on record as supporting the Iraqi government and declaring that the rule of law as defined in the Iraqi constitution supersedes all.

  • SoldiersDad says:

    “Politics aside, perhaps the Hezbollah Shia model should be cited here.”
    Do you mean the the time honored technique of despots everywhere of blocking access to jobs and humanitarian aid unless you become a ‘supporter’?
    Anyone who attempts to deliver humanitarian aid into a JAM controlled area in Iraq that isn’t JAM gets shot at. Of course the relief agencies..faced with a choice of letting JAM/Hezbollah deliver the aid or letting the people starve to death are going to let JAM/Hezbollah deliver the aid.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    SD head the nail on the head here. The US/GoI strategy in Sadr City is to not allow the Mahdi Army to distribute this aid. The Mahdi Army is reacting violently to this as it undercuts their only real “legitimacy” it has in Sadr City.
    One thing unknown about the SoI program with converting to public works is the level of backing by the Iraqi government. They should take a lead role in promoting both this and the integration into security forces, where there has been some progress despite the negative reporting on this front. To expect the GoI to immediately integrate groups that partially consist of former insurgents without some time of trust-building period is unrealistic.

  • mjr007 says:

    Thanks Bill. I’m not sure if it was you or DJ who mentioned the Peshmerga either joining up with IA or being pensioned out. Same with Badr in the South with a much older base.
    Do you know if those being pensioned out are eligible to line up social work jobs with SoI?

  • Max says:

    I think what the Iraqi government needs to do ASAP is to spend some of their surplus on creating a nationwide network of community colleges to help rebuild their population from the ground up. While it doubtless will be difficult, it must be done if any of these people who have been so devastated by all of the wars of Iraq are to ever have a chance to build a future for themselves.
    Education (and it would have to be free) is the door to a better future for these people. Without it, they have no hope.

  • remoteman says:

    Another source of work/training will be with the huge number of foriegn contractors that come in to assist the rebuilding when security improves. Take Basrah as an example. The ports there need to be totally rebuilt. That is going to be a huge project that is going to employ lots of people. Training classes followed by meaningful employment on the project for locals must be made part of the winning contractors bid. This approach should be replicated on all projects where an international contractor is going to play a leading role. This is in line with what Max wrote above, but focused more on hands-on training than book learning. Regardless, putting the people to work on the rebuilding of their country is a critical priority. They have the oil revenue, they need to use it.

  • David M says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 04/15/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front lines.

  • Matthew says:

    The issue is what kind of goods and/or services can Iraq provide that will generate a vibrant economy?
    Oil exploration/Production is one, Agriculture is another, I don’t know if any mining would happen, Construction will definitely drive the economy – especially infrastructure and housing. The service sector has potential for growth – especially with imaginative Iraqis thinking of ways to provide service to the Middle East.
    Although we would like to see Iraq get back on is feet ASAP, it took (West) Germany a long time – 10+ years to recover from WWII and that was with massive aid from the U.S. We need to exhibit that level of patience and we can do so because East Germany (Soviets) was a hostile neighbor as Iran and Syria are to Iraq.

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  • Michael says:

    SoI, Sunni are being slowly integrated into MOD and MOI and have been now for some time. It will take time, but I expect the winnowing process has improved and as more leaders emerge, the propsects of a strong military with ethics, discipline, and goals to protect innocents will continue to grow. It is a huge change for all sides from past corruption.
    SoldiersDad has it right.
    No way does Iraq want to simulate Hezbollah, a mafia gang built on religion. They control all movement of resources and goods to the detriment of the people by forced membership and skim profit off the top for their personal and political goals supported by Iran.
    This is last and opposite direction Iraq and American leadership would select What a disaster like Lebanon, Gaza and even Pakistan’s Taliban rebel areas in unsettled territories.
    Experts know this best. But even civilians should know our lessons by now.
    1) Do not negotiate with criminals from weakness
    2) Never pull out from any area in weakness
    3) Defeat your enemy given the opportunity
    4) Never allow enemy sanctuary in the country you are fighting to liberate. That is eventual suicide.
    5) Stand up moderates, empower them, stabalize the nation on Rule of Law and rebuild a healthy economy based upon Free Market values ASAP. In short love thy enemy – because they’re not really our enemy once they know us. Petraeus knows this intimately and has utilized it well.
    6) Do not change culture. Do change hearts, minds and attitudes for a better, free society.
    7) Leave the country better than you found it. Establish a new government as an ally for the long term future. Never leave an ally ever again to a mutual enemy. We did this in Gulf I and in Iran in 78 and it hurt our relationships tremendously, plus has now created another war machine with which our military must now plan to contend with in the future.
    That seems so simple to state now. But evidently it has not yet penetrated some elitist minds in our own country.

  • Michael says:

    grrrr, typo, 79, not “78” I’ll never forget it. We had two groups of Iranians busting out warfare on campus with bats, knives and fist….

  • lela says:

    Soldiers Dad and Michael have the right perspective. I just hope it’s grounded in reality! Thanks for another great article, and wonderful analysis, from Gordon A!

  • Rhyno327/lrsd says:

    The “SOI” has been a major turning point in the fight to stablize Iraq. When will Maliki’s Gov. come up with a plan to share oil revenue? The Sunni’s are not going to wait forever. This issue is PAST due. It will be the undoing of watever progress that has been made. They and the Kurds may turn out to be good allies. The Mahdi and thier Iranian masters have to go. To lose over 4,000, another 30,000 with disabling injuries, to an Iranian backed militia is a no-go. If the 3 groups cannot come up with a plan, led by Maliki, there MUST be a change of leadership.


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