Iraq takes over guard program in restive Diyala

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. forces put the Iraqi government in charge of tribal guards in restive Diyala province north of Baghdad on Sunday, another step in the U.S. military’s gradual disengagement from day-to-day combat.

The tribal guard units, known as “Awakenings” and made up mostly of Sunni Arabs including former insurgents, have been on the front line against al Qaeda Sunni militants, who made a stand in Diyala after being driven out of other parts of Iraq.

U.S. troops credit the guards program -- which raised a force of about 100,000 paid volunteers across the country -- with helping drastically to reduce violence.

“I consider (the handover) a major step, especially in a province that once was a hot spot, where the Awakenings had a big role in achieving security,” Diyala governor Raad Rasheed told Reuters by telephone before a ceremony to mark the event.

The guards will now be paid by the Iraqi government instead of by U.S. troops. The government says it will take 20 percent of the guards, across Iraq, into the regular army and police and gradually demobilize the rest into civilian jobs or training.

The United States has pledged to remove its combat troops from the streets of Iraqi towns by the middle of this year, under a pact which came into effect on New Year’s Day and which calls for full U.S. withdrawal by the end of 2011.

But standing down the mainly Sunni guard force will be a tricky task for the Shi’ite-led government in the coming months. Some guards say they fear being abandoned or arrested.

In Diyala, which has remained one of the most violent parts of Iraq as other areas have grown quieter, the guards have often borne the brunt of attacks by al Qaeda bombers.

“The indications on the ground affirm that there is a positive change in Diyala province .... but that is not to deny that there are still issues: there are enemies still lurking, enemies in sleeper cells,” the governor said.

Reporting by Aseel Kami; writing by Peter Graff; editing by Tim Pearce