BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s government wants to start paying the wages of U.S.-backed neighborhood security units that have been credited with helping cut violence in the country, a U.S. general said on Monday.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said he was not immediately aware of any Iraqi plan to pay the wages which have so far been paid by U.S. forces. Such a move would signal growing government support for the units.
The Shi’ite-led government has at times appeared ambivalent about the rapid growth of such units, dubbed “concerned local citizens” groups by the U.S. military.
Most of the 77,000 men under the program are Sunni Arabs recruited from their neighborhoods to operate checkpoints.
Brigadier-General Edward Cardon, a deputy commander for an area extending from Baghdad’s southern outskirts into central Iraq, said coalition forces were currently paying the wages.
“However, the government of Iraq has just come to us, saying they would like to take over this role and they will start working with these citizen groups and pay them for what they are doing,” Cardon told a news conference.
“That is still very much in the beginning stages, but (is) a very positive development.”
Members of neighborhood security units can earn around $300 a month, much less than Iraqi policemen or soldiers.
The model first emerged in Anbar province last year when Sunni Arab tribes gathered their young men into units to join forces with the U.S. military in fighting Sunni Islamist al Qaeda, which controlled parts of the vast desert region.
In partnership with U.S. forces, more than 180 “concerned local citizens” groups have been set up.
But this has angered some Shi’ites, who say U.S. forces are creating unaccountable militias. Some members of the new security units once belonged to Sunni Arab insurgent groups.
The ruling Shi’ite Alliance of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has previously said the new fighters were stirring up trouble around Baghdad under the pretext of combating al Qaeda.
Cardon restated the U.S. military position that American soldiers were not arming such groups or creating new militias.
“We do train them, but we train them how to operate a checkpoint, that’s it. We don’t train them to conduct operations ... We don’t allow concerned citizens to form where we are not operating,” he said
“No one can deny that they have been remarkably successful in leading to the stability that we have today. The real question is what to do next.”
U.S. commanders say the citizen groups are temporary, but some analysts question what will happen to those men who are not absorbed into the Iraqi security forces, especially if they stop getting paid. Analysts say they could easily switch sides.
Cardon said there were 28,000 “concerned citizens”, of which about 20,000 were paid, in the region from southern Baghdad into central Iraq where he is based. The rest were volunteers.
The falling violence in Iraq has also been attributed to a “surge” of 30,000 extra U.S. troops and a ceasefire from the feared Mehdi Army Shi’ite militia. (Additional reporting by Alaa Shahine; Editing by Dominic Evans)