BAGHDAD (Reuters) - From a money-counting table stacked with cash to a staircase out in the hallway, a long line of U.S.-backed Iraqi fighters wait patiently for their dues.
It’s pay week for the patrolmen who helped flush al Qaeda militants out of their Baghdad neighborhoods. Only this time, it is the Shi’ite-led Iraqi government that is paying the mainly Sunni fighters, rather than the U.S. military.
Putting the fighters, many of whom were once insurgents, on the payroll of a government they once fought is seen as a major test of reconciliation as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw.
The Iraqi army began paying them at dozens of stations opened this week throughout Baghdad.
The U.S. military says the fighters number 100,000, about half of them in Baghdad province. The government took charge of the Baghdad fighters last month and plans to take on those in other parts of the country in coming months.
They had been receiving $300 a month from the U.S. military and the government pay stations are now handing out the equivalent in Iraqi dinars. Some 19,000 fighters are expected to be paid this way by Nov 17, the first round.
Many former insurgents in the program have feared arrest. Others feared being abandoned by the government, which has promised jobs in the army or police for just 20 percent of them but says it will find civilian work or training for the rest.
“We were worried for the future. But right now, things are looking good,” said Mohammed Saddam Mohammed, 25, as he leafed through a wad of Iraqi dinars to check it was the right amount at an army station in Baghdad’s Rasheed district.
“Our main concern is pay. As long as they money is still there, we can survive and feed our families.”
Called Awakening Councils or “Sahwa” in Arabic, the units led mostly by local Sunni Arab tribal sheikhs began turning against al Qaeda militants two years ago in western Iraq’s Anbar province, providing a model that was rolled out nationwide.
Iraq has pledged to keep paying them until other jobs are found, as long as they register with the government. Despite predictions many would stay away, fearing reprisals, most of the Sahwa members in Baghdad did register.
“We’ve been through all the doom and gloom,” said Brigadier-General Robin Swan, a deputy commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad. “They’ll be arrested in droves, the government won’t pay them, the Iraqi army will ostracize them ... Exactly (the opposite) ... is what’s happened.”
Iraqi officials hope the Sahwas’ first pay week in government hands will help build up long-lacking trust.
“They can see with their own eyes we intend to pay salaries and in the long run give them a chance to find jobs,” said Iraqi Major-General Mudhar al-Mawla, who is overseeing the transition.
Mawla said no Sahwas would be purged or pursued by the police unless the relative of a victim of a grave crime such as murder made a specific complaint about them to a court.
Ali Luai, 25, said he was one of the few already offered a place in the security forces. “I’m very happy, the pay is twice as good,” he said, after collecting his cash.
But Mohammed Lazim, 19, applied for a security forces job and was rejected, leaving him unsure about what to do next.
“The reality is .. it’s a challenge to bring in new soldiers,” said U.S. Lieutenant-Colonel Mike Runey, a plans officer in west Baghdad. “They already have a long list of them.”
The government has set up training colleges for the former fighters. At one such college in Baghdad’s Rasheed district, men in dark blue overalls and hard hats huddled around a water tank as a plumbing teacher explained how to fix leaky pipes.
A civil engineer taught a class, all eyes glued to a technical drawing on the blackboard.
“I’m studying to be an electrician,” said Mustafa Amer, 22. “I was a Sahwa before, but I want out. If this war ends, there’ll be more demand for electricians than fighters.”
Editing by Dominic Evans