The Iraqi government has hired nearly 50,000 "Sons of Iraq", former insurgents who switched sides and helped U.S. forces battle al-Qaeda, and expects to absorb the rest by mid-year, an Iraqi official said on Tuesday.
The integration of some 90,000 members of the Sunni Muslim movement, also known as Sahwa, or Awakening, into neighborhood patrols was considered a turning point in the sectarian war that killed tens of thousands after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Many Sahwa were insurgent fighters aligned with al Qaeda before being lured across the battle lines, in part by payments of about $300 a month provided by the United States.
Responsibility for their pay and their integration into the government was turned over to Iraq in October 2008.
The incorporation of the Sunni fighters into Iraq's army, police and ministries was considered a key test for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his Shiite-led government, which had advocated national reconciliation after years of war.
Maliki has made Iraq's security gains a key plank in his campaign for March 7 parliamentary elections.
Mohammed Salman, chairman of Iraq's Implementation and Followup Committee for National Reconciliation, said the government had integrated about 15,000 Sons of Iraq into security forces and 33,000 into other government ministries.
He said there were a total of 96,000 Sahwa members.
"I think by the middle of 2010 all of the Awakening groups will have their jobs and start their professional lives," Salman said at a news conference in Baghdad.
The Pentagon warned last year that the slow pace of Sahwa integration could jeopardize security gains. Overall violence in Iraq has dropped significantly but militants have launched major attacks in Baghdad in recent months, and bombings and assassinations are still daily occurrences.
Salman said the Iraqi government had resolved "technical problems" that delayed payments for the Sons of Iraq initially.
"There was no decree to delay their salaries. It was not a political issue," he said. "Now they get their salaries."
Funds have been allocated in the 2010 budget to pay for the Sahwa integration program, Salman added. "This is an indication of the seriousness of the government."
I think by the middle of 2010 all of the Awakening groups will have their jobs and start their professional lives
Mohammed Salman, chairman of the Implementation and Followup Committee for National Reconciliation