Integrating patrols next challenge for Iraq, U.S

Thu Dec 20, 2007 5:23am EST
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By Alaa Shahine

ISKANDARIYA, Iraq (Reuters) - Saad Hameed says he is willing to risk his life defending a large area filled with scrap metal, old mortar bombs and rusty broken cars for a steady income and the prospect of joining the Iraqi police.

Being illiterate, the 29-year-old farmer stands a slim chance of passing the test to join the force. He says he would settle for any government job.

"Anything. Even a guard," he said, standing at one of the neighborhood patrol checkpoints on a 10 mile road cutting through an old ammunition factory.

With violence across Iraq falling in recent months, one of the challenges facing the Iraqi government and the U.S. military is finding jobs for 71,000 mainly Sunni Arab men who have signed up for neighborhood patrols.

The alternative could be thousands of disenchanted unemployed gunmen, some of whom were once insurgents fighting the Shi'ite-led government and U.S. troops, and are now more organized.

Mutual suspicion between the government and the Sunni tribal sheikhs who recruit their men to join the patrols makes the issue all the more delicate, as the U.S. military gradually hands the program over to Baghdad.

The Iraqi government was initially lukewarm about giving legitimacy to men it once called enemies by allowing them to carry weapons. Under U.S. pressure it now says it values the program and will put most of them on its payroll by mid-2008.

But although Iraq has become much less violent in recent months, Sunni Arab leaders and the Shi'ite government have made little progress in passing power-sharing laws. Some sheikhs say they remain suspicious of the government.   Continued...