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Monday, November 23, 2009     GET REAL

Some 'Sons of Iraq' Sunni militia units still active

BAGHDAD — A U.S.-financed Sunni militia remains operational in Iraq more than a year after it was to have been disbanded.   

Officials said the Sunni-dominated Sahwa militia, also known as Sons of Iraq, has been operating in several provinces in Iraq despite a government decision in October 2008 to disband the force. They said the force, which once numbered 100,000, contains tens of thousands of officers, most of whom were meant to have been transferred to either the security forces or other government jobs.

"Since our arrival, of course, there was a great deal of skepticism up front as to whether any transition of the Sahwa would indeed take place," U.S. Army Col. Gregory Lusk said.

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Lusk, commander of the 30th Heavy Brigade Team and based in Baghdad, said about 20,000 Sunni militiamen continue to operate in the Baghdad area, Middle East Newsline reported. He said this comprised the largest force in the area.

Officials said the dismantling of Sahwa has moved slowly largely because of Sunni resistance as well as a government budget shortfall. They said about 3,000 Sunni auxiliary police officers deployed in Baghdad were transferred to government posts in 2009. At the same time, the United States relayed responsibility for Sahwa to the Iraqi government, which has been paying salaries for nearly a year.

In a Nov. 10 briefing, Lusk said Sahwa would be required to maintain security for national elections scheduled for January 2010. The Baghdad area contains 10,000 Iraqi soldiers and 5,000 regular and federal police.

"Now, the challenges that they have before them is the need to fulfill this obligation of transitioning the Sons of Iraq into government jobs versus when to do so, especially keeping in mind the security needs leading up to the elections," Lusk said. "And while I have absolutely no insight as to what they're deciding now, I can only imagine that it's got to be a pretty daunting decision that they're getting ready to go through."

Sahwa has been credited with significantly reducing the Al Qaida presence in Baghdad and the Anbar province. Sahwa contained members of major Sunni tribes capable of identifying Al Qaida and operatives of the ousted Saddam Hussein regime.

Some of the tribesmen were said to have been targeted by Al Qaida and Saddam operatives. On Nov. 16, suspected Saddam operatives dressed in Iraq Army uniforms killed at least 13 tribal members who belonged to Sahwa.

"Now, this fruitful and productive relationship with our Iraqi security force partners has resulted in the reduction of capabilities for Al Qaida in Iraq operating within our operating environment, as well as the reduction in capacity of former special groups and other rejectionists," Lusk said.

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