The loyalty of more than 80,000 armed men was purchased with paychecks from Washington that can't go on forever.
HAWR RAJAB, IRAQ - After five years of trial and error, the strategy of recruiting local tribesmen to help defend their neighborhoods against Islamic extremists has proved one of the most effective weapons in the U.S. counterinsurgency arsenal.
But restoring a measure of calm to what were some of the most violent places in Iraq in turn has presented the U.S. military with one of its biggest headaches: what to do with the more than 80,000 armed men whose loyalty has been bought with paychecks that cannot go on forever.
"We don't want to pay people to stand on street corners with guns if they don't need to be there. What we want to do is we want to get them into a transition to more gainful employment," said Col. Martin Stanton, who oversees the effort for the U.S. military.
After months of U.S. entreaties, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government agreed in December to hire a portion of the mostly Sunni Arab fighters into the official security forces. But the process of approving the hires is painfully slow -- some say deliberately so -- and less than a third are expected to qualify.
U.S. and Iraqi officials are now hammering out details of a plan to revive local economies and create opportunities for the fighters through vocational training, public works schemes, farm revitalization programs, micro-grants and business start-up loans. The two governments have committed $155 million apiece to the projects.
But these are long-term strategies, and the fighters need jobs now. If not, many say they will have no choice but to work for the insurgency, which has tried to recruit them back with offers of more money.
Sunni Arab tribesmen first approached the U.S. military in Al-Anbar Province in 2006 for help to drive out the Islamic extremists they once backed. When commanders saw how effective the tribesmen were, they began using the power of the dollar to court allies in other insurgent bastions where residents had grown disenchanted with the militants' ideology and brutality. The U.S. military has signed contracts worth $143 million to date with the tribesmen, whom they now call Sons of Iraq, to help guard roads, bridges and other infrastructure.
U.S. commanders say the three-month deals were never intended to be more than stop-gap measures in areas where U.S. and Iraqi forces did not have the numbers to provide security. But the fighters argue they have proved their worth and deserve permanent jobs.
Adding urgency to their demands is a mounting death toll among the guards, as Sunni insurgents take aim at the neighborhood security groups that threaten their networks.