BAGHDAD Some U.S.-allied Sunni Arab fighters who helped drive al Qaeda out of much of Iraq are deserting their posts because of delays in pay and a spate of arrests and government raids targeting them, their leaders say.
And though the militiamen, many of whom are ex-insurgents who switched sides, are not rejoining the insurgency en masse, leaders fear some will soon see that as their best option.
U.S. military officials say hiccups in pay are temporary and that Iraq knows the program is too important to fail.
The mostly Sunni Arab "Awakening Councils" -- Majalis al-Sahwa in Arabic -- were key to cutting violence in Baghdad, western Anbar province and other former al Qaeda strongholds.
Their roughly 100,000 guards, who man checkpoints and raid insurgent hideouts, were paid by U.S. forces until Iraq took control of them in the past few months. Since then, their pay has fallen behind and some have been arrested in crackdowns.
There were no precise numbers to nail down just how many guards had left their posts but several commanders said there had been desertions.
How the Shi'ite-led government, viewed with suspicion in the Awakening, treats the militiamen is a major test for Iraq as it seeks reconciliation after years of vicious sectarian war.
The government has promised to put 20 percent into the security forces and find others civilian jobs. Few have moved.
Shuja al-Adhami, who heads a Sahwa unit in western Baghdad's Ghazaliya district, said U.S. forces always paid on time, but the government has delayed salaries for months.
"I have 170 Sahwa fighters and 40 have already left their posts to drive taxis, sell groceries or do construction, and why? Because they have children to feed and can't bear the government's delay," he said.
"SPARE THEIR LIVES"
Hassan al-Jubouri, a Sahwa leader in northern Kirkuk, said a quarter of his 500 fighters had already quit.
Colonel Jeffrey Kulmayer, a senior reconciliation official for U.S. forces in Iraq, said the pay delay was a glitch related to the handover to Iraqi control and would be sorted out.
"The government is working very hard to fight through the bureaucracy and that caused the pay to be off schedule," he said. "We are getting reports that low numbers at some checkpoints have walked off ... but as soon as the government says 'pay day is on Tuesday', you're going to get people back."
In Baghdad's Adhamiya district, Sunni guard leader Abu Omar sits at a dusty desk that once belonged to his brother, the guard unit's boss until he was slain on duty last July.
"Without us, things would return to what they were in 2005. What Awakening guards can do in two hours, U.S. and Iraqi troops weren't able to do in four years," the chain-smoking ex-military intelligence officer said defiantly.
Besides pay, the Sahwas are increasingly anxious about a spate of government raids and arrests of Sahwa guards.
In the most recent incident, Iraqi soldiers stormed the home of Basim Mohammed in western Baghdad's Abu Ghraib district on Tuesday. They shot him dead and arrested his brother.
On Sunday, Iraqi forces arrested Nadhim al-Jubouri, an Awakening chief in Salahuddin province, allegedly for crimes committed before he switched sides.
In late March, Iraqi forces seized Adil al-Mashhadani, head of another guard unit in central Baghdad's Fadhil neighborhood, sparking clashes that killed three people.
The militiamen were offered some legal protection for crimes, except murder, committed before signing up as Sahwa.
Abu Mirna al-Zubaidi, a Sahwa leader in Fadhil, said the militiamen faced a difficult decision: either stay on in the Awakening, exposing themselves to the risk of government arrest or al Qaeda attack, or rejoin the insurgency.
Kulmayer said that while some militiamen were switching sides again, the fears of a mass defection were overblown.
"There's recruiting out there going on by al Qaeda, who are saying: 'See, we told you the government's not going to pay you ... come back to us.'. But we don't see it enticing folks." (Additional reporting by Missy Ryan in Baghdad; Writing by Tim Cocks)