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Latest update : 2008-10-02

Sunni militias battling al Qaeda in Iraq transferred to Iraqi government control Wednesday, according to US and Iraqi authorities. But it’s a transfer that’s essentially cosmetic, says FRANCE 24’s Lucas Menget.

If the US and Iraqi authorities are to be believed, the mostly Sunni anti-al Qaeda militia, known as Sahwa in Arabic, are now under Iraqi government control.


“The MNF-I (Multinational Force-Iraq) is transferring the responsibility of the Sons of Iraq to the Iraq government today,” US military spokesman Lieutenant David Russell said Wednesday, without providing further details.


The US military uses the term Sons of Iraq, or “SOIs,” to refer to the Sahwa militia, which it recruited from among Sunni tribesmen and former insurgents.


In reality, the Sahwa militia remains under US control. The only change is that their members will now receive their salaries from the Iraqi government. It’s a symbolic move, which appeared to be aimed at reassuring the American public a few weeks before the Nov. 4 presidential elections that a gradual withdrawal from Iraq is possible



Competing paymasters: The US military and al Qaeda


In January, a US military officer told France 24 that if the Sahwa militiamen had agreed to cooperate with the US military, it was simply because “the US pays better than al Qaeda.”


At that time, the strategy of former US commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, was just starting to be implemented. The strategy involved getting some al Qaeda combatants to switch allegiance to the US army in Iraq. Success was real, rapid and relatively effective. In a few months, several Sunni insurgents, weary of the fanatical violence gripping their country, decided to turn over their weapons. For the Sunnis, it was a way to return to the political game, and also to lay down their conditions in the process.


The very combatants - often led by former warlords - who had viciously resisted the US military, now started to patrol the streets of Baghdad, Fallujah and other Sunni-dominated cities. Armed and paid by the Americans, they could put an end to the fighting and take on the ferocity of al Qaeda’s Iraqi branch.



Militiamen playing the political game


But there have been setbacks. These Sunnis, foes of the Iraqi army since 2003, demanded to return to the political game and be integrated into the national army. In a January interview with FRANCE 24 in Fallujah, one of the most important Sahwa chiefs - with 13,000 men under his command - warned that, “if my fighters are not integrated into the army, and if the Shiites do not agree to share power, we will take up arms against the occupier.”



Since Wednesday morning, the Iraqi government has been authorized to pay $300 a month to Sahwa combatants. A gesture to show, barely a month before the US presidential election, that the "Iraqisation" process is underway.


But in fact, Sahwa will remain under US military control. Especially since the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government announced that it could only integrate 20% of the 100,000-strong militia into the Iraqi army. What will become the 80,000-odd remaining combatants? Still paid, still armed, they are a potential threat for Iraq. And they can, in a matter of days, unleash the most powerful insurrection in the country.


Date created : 2008-10-01