Iraqi government struggles to win Sunnis’ trust

FORWARD OPERATING BASE Q-WEST, Iraq (AP) – With flattering praise and tough talk, the retired Iraqi army general urged the Sunni sheiks sitting across the table to set aside sectarian rivalry and work with the Shiite-led government.

The success of the general’s pitch is key to Iraq’s future. It’s part of an effort to prevent tens of thousands of American-backed Sunni fighters from rejoining the insurgency as the U.S. prepares to exit.

“You answered the call, rolling up your sleeves and rising up to help the police, the army and the coalition forces to defeat the foreign terrorists,” said Mudhar al-Mawlah, who’d been dispatched by the prime minister’s office to this remote U.S. military base 200 miles north of Baghdad to meet with the sheiks.

But the four sheiks at Wednesday’s meeting were skeptical, their stern expressions masking fear for their futures without American protection. As Sunni moderates, they find themselves caught in the middle, fearing both assassination by al-Qaida militants and mistreatment by Shiite authorities.

“Don’t abandon us now to be killed,” Saad al-Zobaie pleaded with al-Mawlah. He demanded five personal bodyguards for himself and each of the three other sheiks.

Al-Mawlah, a 64-year-old Shiite, is the face of Iraqi government’s outreach program to sheiks who represent local Awakening Councils, or Sahwa – one of several names for the Sunni fighters, also known as Sons of Iraq, who changed the course of the war when they revolted against al-Qaida and joined the Americans in late 2006 and 2007.

He hopes to prevent the Sahwa from drifting back to the insurgency at a time when the government, short on cash because of plummeting oil prices, has had to slash rebuilding projects key to winning hearts and minds in impoverished and embittered Sunni areas.

With Iraqi security forces still not ready to assume responsibility for security without U.S. support, a revival of the Sunni-led insurgency could reverse the major security gains of the past 18 months and possibly re-ignite the sectarian violence that has killed thousands.

The U.S. military has already transferred responsibility for about 70,000 of the 94,000 Sahwa fighters to the Iraqi government in a process that began in October and is to end in April.

But many of Sahwa fighters are wary of the new arrangement, and even U.S. commanders had long complained about Baghdad’s attitude toward the Sahwa. Their concerns reflected the widely held view that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Shiite leaders feared the Sunni fighters could one day use the strength gained from their alliance with the Americans to rejoin the insurgency or wrest major political concessions.

But the government, encouraged by the dramatic reduction in violence, appears to have adopted a more conciliatory approach that may have something to do with al-Maliki’s own political calculations. He is seeking to widen his popular base ahead of two key votes: provincial polling later this month and parliamentary elections late this year.

The transfer has gone much better than expected, though some Sahwa leaders fled the country to avoid arrest for what they said were bogus charges while others were detained and charged with crimes including slaughtering civilians.

“We are all working together for the same thing – to bring these young men back to the government, back to their country and to continue to build a stable and a secure Iraq,” said Maj. Gen. Michael Ferriter, the U.S. military’s point man on the Sahwa. “Things are falling into place.”

The government has pledged to pay the fighters’ salaries while integrating 20 percent of them into the security forces, and finding jobs or making one-time payments or gifts such as a pickup truck or a tractor to the rest.

On Wednesday, the four sheiks insisted on pay raises for themselves and their 1,620 men along with immunity from prosecution.

Nazhan Sakhr said the 300 men under his command preferred to remain at the service of the U.S. military than accept the government’s offer of enrollment in the police – even though that is not an option.

“The police are full of Baathists and al-Qaida,” he said before the meeting.

Al-Qaida militants and other Sunni extremists have assassinated scores of Sahwa leaders to punish them for joining forces with the Americans. Al-Zobaie, the sheik who demanded the bodyguards, survived an assassination attempt last year that left him with a limp.

Al-Mawlah, in a brown suit and matching tie, took notes but made no promises.

“Does the Sahwa have legal cover?” he asked rhetorically, noting that the government’s outreach was voluntary. “The Sahwa was imposed on us because of the security situation. It has no real legal cover.”

Their salaries, he said, will match what they’d been getting from the Americans – about $300 a month for a fighter and slightly more for the sheiks.

At one point, a sheik’s denunciations of the government angered al-Mawlah and prompted an Iraqi army commander to plead with the sheiks to remain civil.

But at the meeting’s end, al-Mawlah huddled with the sheiks in a corner out of the Americans’ ear shot. Later, everyone smiled while posing for group photos.