The Iraqi government is resisting U.S. efforts to incorporate former Sunni insurgents into Iraqi security forces, threatening a strategy that helped make the surge a success thus far and could allow U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraqi cities next year.
Fewer than 600 of the 103,000 Iraqis currently active in U.S.-supported Sunni militia groups have been absorbed so far, said Colin H. Kahl of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, citing figures provided to him by the U.S. military during a recent trip to Iraq.
The Pentagon provided slightly higher estimates Tuesday.
Capt. Charles G. Calio, a spokesman for U.S.-led forces in Iraq, said in an e-mail that nearly 24,000 “Sons of Iraq” have found permanent employment in the past two years, but only 946 have entered the Iraqi security forces.
About 2,300 others have been vetted for possible positions in the security forces, he said.
“We are committed to the [Sons of Iraq] and an orderly transition for all of them,” Capt. Calio said. He called the program “a work in progress.”
Sunni groups known by names such as “Awakening Councils” and “Sons of Iraq” have sided with U.S. troops to help push al Qaeda-linked terrorists underground or out of the country altogether.
The Pentagon says it wants 16,000 integrated into Iraqi security forces by June.
Mr. Kahl - who also advises presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama about Iraq - and other experts warned that if the Sunni fighters are not brought into the Iraqi security forces, it risks slowing a potential withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraqi cities.
Dan Curfiss, program manager for Iraq at the National Defense University´s Near East and South Asia Center, said that if the integration fails, “You would have in effect two armies” in the country, and the militias “could very easily return to a rogue status.”
“[Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki has no interest in integrating these guys - none,” Mr. Kahl said. “He thinks they´re thugs; he thinks they´re hooligans … . In fact, there´s some evidence that he´s trying to pick fights with them, hoping that they will start a fight that he can then turn around and finish them.”
Several U.S. news organizations reported last week that Iraqi security forces had orders to arrest or kill hundreds of Sunni group leaders.
Sam Parker, who helps run the Iraq program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the al-Maliki government is “slow-rolling” the process of integrating members of the Sunni groups and that it will not move forward “without more pressure … from the highest levels of the U.S. government.”
“The [Sons of Iraq] will rightly conclude that they’re not going to get a place at the table, and go back to doing what they were doing before,” Mr. Parker said. “Rather than trying to join the political process, they will try to undermine it with violence as part of the insurgency.”
The Bush administration may not be in a good position to exert that pressure, analysts warn, since it is already struggling to conclude an agreement with the al-Maliki government that will permit U.S. forces to remain after a U.N. mandate expires Dec. 31.
The agreement, according to the Iraqis, calls for all U.S. combat forces to leave Iraqi cities by next June and to leave the country entirely by the end of 2011.
Recently retired U.S. Army counterinsurgency expert Col. John A. Nagl, who traveled with Mr. Kahl to Iraq, partly attributed the slow integration to bureaucratic problems.
“I´m sure that there is some sectarianism in these decisions, but I also am confident that some of it is just inefficient bureaucracy,” said Col. Nagl, the author of several books on counterinsurgency, who helped write the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual published in December 2006.
Mr. Kahl also warned against a strategy of limiting integration to Sunni leaders and placing them in low-level jobs.
“Oh, sure, we´ll let that colonel in the … Republican Guard into the Iraqi police, but we´ll make him an enlisted beat cop,” he said, describing the attitude of some Baghdad officials. “Do you know how low on the social scale that is in Iraq and how humiliating this is?”
“You don´t have to believe that 100,000 of these guys are going to turn back into insurgents,” Mr. Kahl said. “If 5,000 of them do, that could be a big problem.”