Integration of Sons of Iraq: Update

Recently published numbers indicating accelerated integration of the Sons of Iraq (SOI) were confirmed to me over the weekend by Major General Stephen Lanza, spokesman for United States Forces – Iraq. Specifically, Lanza listed the following statistics:

~ 76,000 Sons of Iraq remain on the payroll

~ 41,000 (53.9%) total Sons of Iraq have been integrated

~ 30,000 integrated in the Baghdad area (~17,000 Karkh area and ~13,000 in Rusafa)

~ 10,000-11,000 integrated outside Baghdad

Notable statistics include the drastic increase in overall SOI integrated (up from only 24,000 in November) and the higher proportion in the Baghdad area vs. the rest of the provinces. As a measure of “reconciliation,” the latter might represent a troublesome variable, since a greater proportion of the SOI in the capital are Shia (I hesitate to bother with broad sectarian descriptions in today’s Iraq, but sometimes they suffice as shorthand).

I asked Maj. Gen. Lanza if this greater integration is the result of sectarian preference or simple proximity to the government ministries based in the capital, and he offered a third rationale also mentioned by other US sources: many of the provincial governors outside Baghdad have requested maintaining the SOI in their current role through the election. The SOI are widely acknowledged as an effective local security force, though tensions with the police and army occasionally flare during day-to-day operations.

He also indicated that Muhammad Salman, chairman of Iraq’s Implementation and Follow-Up Committee for National Reconciliation (IFCNR), and his deputy, Dr. Zuhair al Chalabi, have been meeting with provincial governors, Iraqi Security Forces officers, and sheiks to outline future integration plans. IFCNR has also straightened out “all pay issues,” ensuring that the payroll is current and the Ministry of Finance has given the Ministry of the Interior enough money to cover salaries through 2010. Lanza asserts that the “positive story” is that the Iraqi government has taken full responsibility for the SOI since April.

“They have budgeted for these guys,” said Lanza. “They have integrated … a fairly substantial number, they have accepted responsibility. I think they’re recognizing the importance of this.”

As a broad measure of “reconciliation,” or “accommodation,” as some prefer to call it, the pace of integrating the Sons of Iraq has shown significant improvement. But the final litmus test will come after the March 7 elections, when the commitment of the new government to hire those outside the capital clarifies itself. This further integration could take different paths, depending on which factions are victorious in March.

In the interim, all eyes on Iraqi politics.

UPDATE: Joel Wing has a more detailed (and skeptical) view on the pace of integrating SOI:

All of these stories represent the conflicted stance the Iraqi government has towards the Sons of Iraq. Baghdad and its ruling Shiite parties have always considered the SOI an American creation, full of former insurgents who are not to be trusted. Despite this they did agree to integrate 20% into the security forces, and give the other 80% jobs in the rest of the government. This was to be accomplished by the end of 2009 however, a deadline that has now been extended to mid-2010 until after the parliamentary elections. Due to Baghdad’s reluctance only around 40-50% of the SOI have been given employment so far. At the same time, they continue to arrest SOI members around the country. This is part of a carrot and stick approach that Maliki has taken since 2007, offering them the chance for a steady job, while at the same time reminding them that the government is in complete control of their fate, and that they can be detained at any time.

I generally agree with Wing’s analysis, but I’ll caution that discerning when the “stick” is or isn’t motivated by politics can be difficult. For example, his post mentions the arrest and persecution of various members of the Diyala Sons of Iraq, citing their ties to the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), which is dimly viewed by Maliki. Wing presents it as an example of the mixed messages sent by the government regarding the fate of the citizen militia. But soley relying on news reports, it is very difficult to determine where examples like this represent political competition, sectarianism, and a lack of government commitment to reconciliation, or a scenario where legitimately bad actors are pressured or ultimately receive comeuppance. And often, these elements overlap.

Broadly speaking, two legitimate factors determine who is reconcilable and who should be subject to justice: how much blood they have on their hands (though there are many folks with bloody hands over the past few years), and how willing an individual is to move forward within the framework of a civil society, rather than revert to car bombs and assassinations.

For one example, Abu Abid, the early leader of the SOI in Ameriyah, was last seen in exile in Jordan after a warrant was issued for his arrest. Abid was initially profiled in the media as a “ruthless” American ally, and finally as a allegorical example of sectarian retribution by the government, and betrayal by American allies.

But Abid had threatened the Vice President’s security detail, attacked another SOI group under his command, and began to exceed his security mandate by running his militia like an enthusiastic mafia enterprise, which spurred both local complaints and betrayal from some within his own organization. In his case, reconciliation did not grant carte blanche for a local warlord to consolidate his fiefdom.

And perhaps my best-known example of an incident that had all the hallmarks of revenge but was actually justified was the arrest and recent execution of Col. Issa al-Sari, a former police officer in Fallujah and high-ranking member of the IIP. Issa’s crimes included attempts to kill the IIP’s political enemies with car bombs and a bid to fix the Provincial elections in his party’s favor. Given the IIP’s history, the government challenging or persecuting the Diyala SOI for ties to that party may simply be a sign of political competition, or it may represent legitimate efforts to combat crime and terrorism. It might be a mixture of both. Without sources in that area, I honestly can’t say.

My point is not to assert that the Iraqi government, legal system and security forces are immune from being used to fulfill plans for revenge or elimination of political competitors. It’s certainly happened, it may be happening to some degree and it’s perhaps the biggest worry in the development of the new Iraq. Najim Abed al Jabouri has warned of politicization of entire ISF divisions, though some American officials assert the problem is currently less dramatic than that.

But I do find it difficult to discern a political/sectarian trend based exclusively on media reports citing discord between the GOI and certain branches of the SOI. The true test will be how quickly the remaining 35,000 fighters are hired into government service after March 7th. Overall, the pace of integrating the Sons of Iraq over the last two months is encouraging.

UPDATE: One reference to Tarek al Hashemi’s ties to insurgency was removed, due to inaccuracy.

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