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 last 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 Shiites, and not just against 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 and injured scores.
One of the bombings, which killed 10 people and wounded five in Baqubah, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, targeted a funeral procession for two members of a Sunni tribal group who local police said had accidentally been killed by U.S. forces in a dawn raid.
In the other suicide attack, a truck bomb exploded outside a residential complex belonging to a state-run oil company in Beiji, about 155 miles north of Baghdad, killing 25 people and injuring 80, police and hospital officials said.
Lynch has credited the Sunni tribal 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 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 the Salie patrol base, just south of Baghdad - where U.S. troops fund about 150 members of the tribal groups.
"We are in a tenuous situation," Lynch said. "We need to give jobs to the citizens [groups], or they will go back to fighting."
Lynch, who leads the Third Infantry Division, said that he had 26,000 members of the groups in the area he controls and that they had 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 more in the coming months.
The groups, along with a surge of U.S. troops into Iraq and a decision by the firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to stand down his Mahdi Army militia for six months, have contributed to an estimated 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."
'Connect the dots'
According to Lynch, the groups helped reduce violence in his area, a former Sunni insurgent hotbed, by 75 percent over the last 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 to them to join us," said Iraqi Army Capt. Hamdan Nasir. But he added that some in the area still considered his troops dangerous.
U.S. officials have said there are plans to absorb about 20,000 of the men into the security forces, and the United States plans to spend $155 million to help create jobs and provide vocational training. The Iraqi government has pledged to match that amount.
"I see great progress," Lynch said, "because citizens are taking things into their own hands. Now we have to connect the dots. It's tenuous. This could still go backward."
He added that a decision to build patrol bases in population centers south of Baghdad also helped, because it has convinced people living there that the United States will back up local forces.
"We are there living with them now," Lynch said. "They want to be free from fear."