BAGHDAD After years of fighting al Qaeda, Ahmed Ali gave up on Iraqi politicians' promises of a new government job, put down his weapons and moved away from his village to work as a fruit and vegetable peddler.
Ali, a member of the government-backed Sunni Sahwa militia, left his home in Mishahda, north of the Iraqi capital, at the beginning of January, a few days after al Qaeda killed five of his fellow Sahwa in a growing wave of reprisals.
"There was no choice but to leave. We have been neglected, left with no salaries, and our weapons were taken by the army, which encouraged al Qaeda to take revenge on us," said Ali as he arranged groceries at his stalls in Baghdad's Adhamiya district.
Members of the Sunni militia, a group of former insurgents who turned against al Qaeda and ultimately helped turn the tide of the Iraq war, are growing increasingly concerned that the new government is not following through on a promise to hire them.
The Sahwa militia - Sons of Iraq, as they became known -- was formed in late 2006, mostly by Sunni sheikhs with the help of the U.S. military during the peak of sectarian bloodshed that killed tens of thousands of people.
The integration of the former fighters into the government is considered a key to stabilizing Iraq eight years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, ahead of a full withdrawal of American troops by the end of this year.
Foreign investors are keen to see stable security and governance in Iraq as it tries to rebuild damaged infrastructure and develop its oil riches. The government has contracted with global companies with the aim of boosting crude output capacity to 8-12 million barrels per day within six years.
"I am not asking for the impossible. The government promised us (jobs) more than two years ago and we are still waiting," Ali said. "How long should we wait?"
The Sahwa fighters, who once numbered around 100,000 across Iraq, took up the battle against al Qaeda and helped cut violence in Baghdad and in volatile, mostly Sunni areas.
Their conversion helped eliminate much of the sectarian violence that threatened to plunge Iraq into an all-out civil war between Sunnis and Shi'ites in 2006 and 2007.
The U.S. military, which supervised and financed Sahwa units at the beginning, turned over the program to the Iraqi government in October 2008.
The Shi'ite-led government promised to hire 20 percent of the fighters into security forces and give the rest civilian jobs. To date only about 40,000 have been hired, all in Baghdad.
Sheikh Hatam al-Nuri, head of Sahwa in the village of Garma, northeast of Falluja, said that only 1,500 fighters out of 3,000 are still working with Sahwa in his area now.
"They (Sahwa fighters) left looking for other jobs because they are fed up the government promises. Even those remaining fighters they keep saying 'you laugh at us by promising us, and nothing happens.' This is not good. It is a shame to give a promise and than disavow it," Nuri said.
Baghdad decided last year to delay the integration in order to keep Sahwa fighters at their posts in neighborhood patrols in the provinces while politicians squabbled over a new government following an inconclusive March election.
It promised Sahwa leaders the remaining fighters would be hired after the formation of a new government. That happened in December but the integration is still stalled.
"Until this moment no single fighter of the Sahwa in Diyala province is integrated, either in security or civilian offices," Diyala Sahwa chief Husam al-Mujamai said.
"It is a very worrying and critical issue. The government must fulfill its promises. If it does not, this will have a negative impact on the ground for security in the province."
WHERE ARE THE JOBS?
Mujamai said there are around 10,000 Sunni guards in Diyala -- an ethnically mixed former al Qaeda stronghold that witnessed major battles during the war -- and many of them are complaining about the delay.
General Ali Ghaidan, the commander of Iraqi ground forces and the man responsible for the Sahwa integration, declined to offer a deadline for hiring the rest.
"The process in other provinces has not been activated yet. Currently, we are discussing how to make use of this number of fighters," he said.
In August 2009, the Pentagon criticized the slow pace of integration, saying that a failure to hire the Sahwa fighters could jeopardize security gains as the U.S. military moves to withdraw forces from Iraq by the end of this year.
Jobless Sahwa could return to a weakened but still lethal insurgency that carries out dozens of attacks each month.
"I swear to God, al Qaeda will return if Sahwa fighters are not integrated into the security forces in Samarra. No one knows al Qaeda people here and no one can stop them but us," said Muhanad Majeed, 22, a Sahwa fighter from Salahuddin province.
Yahya Kubaisi, a political analyst and researcher at the Iraqi Institute for Strategic Studies, said he does not believe the government is serious about hiring the Sahwa.
"If this procrastination policy of the government continues and Sahwa fighters are not integrated by the end of this year, there will be political problems that may affect the security situation in Iraq," Kubaisi said. "The Sahwa could be a factor of instability once again."
While overall violence has plunged since the 2006-07 bloodshed, bombings and other attacks occur every day, with occasional major attacks that kill dozens of people. Sahwa militia members are frequent targets.
"Not integrating them will turn them into a burden. It is their right to have jobs," said Ahmed Abu Risha, a prominent Sunni sheikh who heads the Sahwa movement. "It is not appropriate to disavow them after all the sacrifices they made in fighting and defeating al Qaeda."
(Editing by Jim Loney)