RAMADI, Iraq — Al Qaida in Iraq fighters are returning to this dusty desert town and attacking the Sunni Muslim militias that once subdued them, and they may have infiltrated the makeshift police force.
However, Raad Sabah al Alwani, a local Sunni leader who helped the U.S. military overcome the extremists in embattled Anbar province in 2007, said his pleas to the Shiite Muslim-dominated Iraqi government for reinforcements and support had fallen on deaf ears.
In another Sunni enclave, south of Baghdad, Mustafa Kamil al Juboori, a local Sunni militia leader who helped oust Sunni militants from his Doura neighborhood, said that U.S. forces had guaranteed jobs in the Iraqi government for his men if they turned against al Qaida in Iraq. Nearly two years later, he said, only 20 of his 2,000 fighters have the jobs they were promised.
Juboori and Alwani are among tens of thousands of Sunni militiamen — loosely known as the Sons of Iraq — who fought for the Americans but now complain that the U.S.-backed national government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has abandoned them.
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For nearly a year, U.S. commanders have offered the Sons of Iraq reassurance that they'll be rewarded with permanent jobs in the Iraqi security forces and other government ministries. So far, however, the Sunni fighters say, Maliki's government has been slow to act.
"I believe the government does not want to help Sunnis," said Alwani, who commands nearly 5,000 men in Anbar province, where the Sons of Iraq movement was born. "Maybe they are afraid of us."
Only 17,000 of the more than 94,000 Sons of Iraq who were on the American payroll have been absorbed into the Iraqi army and police forces, said U.S. Lt. Col. Jeffrey Kulmayer, who until last week oversaw the American military's reconciliation effort.
"The jobs are coming," Kulmayer said. The rest of the Sons of Iraq will start getting hired in July at 18 other government ministries, including trade, education, culture and human rights, he said.
More than 300 Sons of Iraq leaders met at the al Rashid hotel in Baghdad on Tuesday to vent their frustration at Muhammad Salman, the director of the Maliki government's "reconciliation" program.
"All of these problems are technical, not political," Salman said after the meeting. Starting Wednesday, he said, three people from his office would be assigned to answer questions from Sons of Iraq leaders.
Violence raged between Sunnis and majority Shiites in 2006 and 2007. Iraq is calmer now, thanks in part to Juboori, Alwani and others who helped hunt down and kill extremist members of their own sect.
The truce is fragile, however. A recent spasm of bombings made April the bloodiest month in a year, and it isn't clear how the relative peace can last if Maliki's government doesn't keep the American promises to the Sons of Iraq.
U.S. combat forces are set to pull out of Iraqi cities by June 30 and to leave the country by 2011, and many Sunni militia leaders fear that when that happens they'll be shut out of power and walking around with targets on their backs.
Shiite-led Iraqi forces already have arrested hundreds of Sunni militiamen, some of them for attacks that the Sunnis say they carried out against al Qaida in Iraq while they were on the U.S. payroll.
Kulmayer said that 217 Sunni militiamen had been arrested in the last year, all for "misconduct" not sanctioned by their American allies. "Only (Sons of Iraq) who do nefarious activities will be arrested. No one is above the law," he said.
Iraqi security forces arrested another Sons of Iraq leader Monday in Diyala province on charges of committing "crimes against civilians."
An undetermined number of other militia leaders have been assassinated or forced into exile. As Alwani sat for an interview May 13 in Ramadi, another Sunni militia leader in nearby Abu Ghraib vanished in a ball of flame when a "sticky" bomb attached to the underside of his car exploded.
Alwani has had repeated warnings from the central government of planned attempts on his life by al Qaida in Iraq, and he suspects that the group was behind two recent attacks.
He said that al Qaida in Iraq had sent two suicide bombers after him. His men shot and killed one before he could detonate his explosive vest; the other set off a car bomb outside Alwani's house, killing 18 people. "Two bodies we could not find; they vanished completely," he said.
Men whom Alwani recruited to fight al Qaida in Iraq now make up Ramadi's police force. Some have been put on the central government's payroll, but Alwani said he paid others from his own pocket.
What started as a small tribal band grew quickly during the fight for the city. Alwani said he didn't know everyone whom he commanded anymore, and close aides have warned him that members of a resurgent al Qaida in Iraq are infiltrating the force.
Alwani said that many of his men were uneducated and inexperienced at police work, so he's asked the Interior Ministry in Baghdad to send professional police commanders to take control of the force and weed out potential terrorists. The central government, however, has offered no help, he said.
Last month, Alwani said, he gathered the other tribal sheiks in Ramadi to ask for an order warning young men not to commit terrorist acts in the name of al Qaida or their fathers would be held accountable.
The sheiks refused to issue the order. "They're too scared," Alwani said. "That's why we need professional police to come here from Baghdad."
Across the country, some rank-and-file Sunni militia members have returned to their former occupations as farmers or taxi drivers, but many held government jobs when the minority Sunnis dominated the country under Saddam Hussein.
Most of those men are still well armed and guarding checkpoints in Sunni neighborhoods. Experts worry that they might start attacking U.S. and Iraqi patrols if the promised jobs don't come through, triggering another sectarian bloodbath.
"Those promises had a direct effect on our lives, and the lives of all the Americans in Iraq," Juboori said, sipping tea on his lawn with a Smith & Wesson revolver in a holster slung across his chest. "And broken promises would also have a direct effect."
Juboori, too, has been targeted recently. He presents guests with an al Qaida in Iraq video of its last attempt. It shows a car slamming into the driver's side of Juboori's Nissan pickup and then exploding. The suicide bomber died instantly, but the video shows Juboori opening his passenger door and walking away.
"We caught the man responsible for sending the bomber within 10 minutes," Juboori said. When he was asked what happened next, he said he hadn't fired a single shot in the war on terrorism. "My weapon is my mind," he said. "My fighters shoot the bullets."
(Dolan reports for The Miami Herald. Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed to this report.)
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