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.
“We would like the government to stay out of the picture. Leave the country to its people,” said Saadoun al-Janabi, a 63-year-old sheikh, one of the Sunni tribal leaders who helped recruit patrols in the area on Baghdad’s southern outskirts.
The U.S. military, which pays most of the patrol members about $10 a day and issues them reflective vests and ID cards, credits the neighborhood patrols as one of the factors for the drop in bloodshed to its lowest levels in nearly two years.
It refers to them as “concerned local citizens” and has said it aims to get them permanent jobs. Those who want to join the regular police would have to pass several tests, including literacy and fitness, while others would have options of attending vocational training for civilian jobs.
Most seem to want to continue to be paid to carry guns. At a series of checkpoints in Babel province south of Baghdad, all patrolmen said they hoped for a job in the police or army.
Major-General Kevin Bergner, spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq, said the Iraqi government has also started structuring “vocational training for the concerned citizens who eventually will want to rejoin ... the civilian workforce.”
The area where Hameed’s checkpoint was set last week is desperate for jobs. Under Saddam Hussein, the Hiteen armaments factory employed 36,000 people and produced all of the army’s artillery shells. After the U.S.-led 2003 invasion, the area fell under the control of al Qaeda fighters.
Today, under a painting of Saddam in a cowboy hat with his face scratched out, two small plants employ just 1,000 people making tractors and buses. U.S. forces want to build a vocational school on the site.
But Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert at the International Crisis Group think-tank, said vocational training would not by itself resolve the underlying problem of mutual distrust.
“The problem is not vocational, it is political ... it is now on hold but will continue once the glue of the American forces is removed,” he said. The tribal leaders want to use the patrols to “increase their leverage in any future confrontation with the government once U.S. forces leave,” he said.
Getting government forces to cooperate with the patrols has been difficult. Some Iraqi police officers in Babel said they were reluctant to place their men at neighborhood checkpoints fearing for their lives if the tribes turned against them.
“I do not trust all of these tribes,” Police Captain Abdul-Rahman al-Tamimi told U.S. military commanders in a recent security meeting in the town of Iskandariya.
Editing by Peter Graff