YOUSSIFIYAH, Iraq - A top U.S. commander warned yesterday that Sunnis who fight al Qaeda in Iraq must be rewarded and recognized as legitimate members of Iraqi society - or else the hard-fought security gains of the past six months could be lost.
But the Shiite-dominated government is deeply concerned about the Sunni tribal groups, made up of men who in the past also fought against them - not just the Americans.
The warning from Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the commander of U.S. forces south of Baghdad, came as two suicide attacks killed at least 35 people around Iraq and injured scores of others. One of the bombings targeted a funeral procession for two members of a Sunni tribal group who local police said were accidentally killed by U.S. forces in a dawn raid.
Lynch has credited these groups for much of the improvement in security in the region he commands, an area about the size of West Virginia and stretching to the Iranian and Saudi Arabian borders.
"The people say security is good now, but we need jobs. It's all about jobs and we have to create them," he said as he flew into patrol base Salie, just south of Baghdad - where U.S. troops fund about 150 members of the tribal groups. "We are in a tenuous situation. We need to give jobs to the citizens [groups] or they will go back to fighting."
Lynch, who leads the 3rd Infantry Division, said he had 26,000 members of the groups in the area he controls and that they have given U.S. and Iraqi forces a key advantage in seeking to clear extremist-held pockets. They number about 70,000 countrywide, and are expected to grow by 45,000 in coming months.
The groups, along with a surge of U.S. troops into Iraq and a decision by firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to stand down his Mahdi Army militia for six months, have contributed to a 60 percent drop in violence around Iraq since June.
The U.S. military now funds the groups, known as Awakening Councils, Concerned Citizens and other names. But they expect to be rewarded for their efforts with jobs, either in the Iraqi security forces or elsewhere.
"They want to be recognized as legitimate members of society and that has to happen," Lynch said as he flew over an area south of Baghdad once known as the "triangle of death."
According to Lynch, the groups helped reduce violence in his area, a former Sunni insurgent hotbed, by 75 percent in the past six months.
"The government of Iraq has to take advantage of this opportunity," by focusing on economic development and governance, he said.
In his area, Lynch is trying to bring them all under the control of the Iraqi Army.
"We do want the good citizens members, we do want to them to join us," said Iraqi Army Capt. Hamdan Nasir. But he added that some in the area still consider his troops "dangerous."