Despair spreads among Sunni allies ahead of imminent takeover by Shiite government

BAGHDAD — First Lt. Justin John, 6 feet 4 and built like a linebacker, plopped down on a sofa in front of Ibrahim Suleiman al-Zoubaidi, one of the leaders of the mainly Sunni armed groups that have helped the U.S. military quell violence in Iraq since last year.

Al-Zoubaidi, a small man armed with a revolver, had one thing on his mind: This week officials of Iraq's Shiite-led government will assume authority over the groups, which have been backed by the United States.

"They will kill us," al-Zoubaidi declared. "One by one."

Across Baghdad, leaders of the groups speak about the transition in similarly apocalyptic terms. Some have left Baghdad, saying they fear that the Iraqi government will conduct mass arrests after the handover. Others are obtaining passports and say they will flee to Syria.

John, a 24-year-old platoon leader, tried to reassure the Iraqi. "It's a new thing," John said. "It's going to take some time to get used to."

Recognizing that the government has been wary from the outset about the creation of armed, mainly Sunni groups under U.S. control, American military officials are taking several steps to prevent their sudden disintegration. American officials see the Sons of Iraq as a central factor in the reduction in violence, along with the temporary increase in U.S. forces, a year-long cease-fire imposed by a Shiite militia leader and the stepped-up assassinations of key insurgents.

John's unit — 2nd Battalion of the 4th Infantry Regiment, attached to the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division — has set aside funds to pay Sons of Iraq guards for 90 days in case the Iraqi government does not. U.S. soldiers say they will sit in as Iraqi officials hand out salary payments during the first few months. And the Americans have demanded that the Iraqi government refrain from arresting any of the Sunni fighters, many of whom are former insurgents, unless authorities have arrest warrants issued within the past six months. That will make it harder for the Shiite government to arrest Sons of Iraq leaders for acts committed before they joined forces with the Americans.

In recent weeks, U.S. military officials began shrinking the ranks of the Sons of Iraq by offering members micro-grants that amount to early-retirement packages. This month alone John's company has handed out more than 30 grants totaling more than $60,000.

"The big issue that concerns us is what happens if the government drops the ball and stops paying these guys," said Capt. Parsana Deoki, 32, of New York. "You'd have up to 400 SOI without jobs, without an income. That presents a problem. They have military training and access to weapons — unemployed, with weapons, young men with an established chain of command. You can fill in the blanks."

Dora, a southern Baghdad district that is roughly 75 percent Sunni, was one of the most tattered and dangerous places in the capital in early 2007. Heaps of garbage collected on the sides of streets, making it hard to detect roadside bombs. Commercial areas and many residential streets were on virtual lockdown. People stopped going to work, fearing kidnapping, an explosion or a sectarian killing.

The Sons of Iraq, also known as Awakening Councils, began in Anbar province in western Iraq in 2006 when tribal leaders joined forces with U.S. troops to fight the growing influence of al-Qaida in Iraq, a largely homegrown insurgent group that imposed a dogmatic brand of Islam.

Desperate for solutions to curtail the endemic violence that gripped Baghdad and several Iraqi provinces in early 2007, the U.S. military sought to replicate the Anbar model across the country. Awakening groups sometimes formed overnight, especially in places where networks of insurgents had weapons and a chain of command.

Mohamed Abdul Hussein al-Kurtani, a Sons of Iraq leader in Dora, had been running a local cell of the 1920 Revolution Brigades, an insurgent group that opposed the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq and had been dueling with the local cell of al-Qaida in Iraq.

"He decided it was a fruitless battle to work against us," said Sgt. Brian Bailey, 31, of Holbrook, Mass. "Instead of hiding in the shadows, they came out."

Al-Kurtani, like most leaders, wears civilian clothes. The guards under his command wear tan uniforms and carry battered AK-47 assault rifles. Most Sons of Iraq are assigned to the neighborhoods where they live and earn $300 to $500 a month.

"At first, the SOI were just guys on street corners," said Lt. Col. Bryan Mullins, 39, of Bristol, Va., a brigade operations officer. "We started integrating them into the security program. They knew the bad guys and they knew who was in the community."

As violence declined this year and Iraqis began demanding more control over security matters, U.S. officials began exploring ways of shrinking the Sons of Iraq.

But getting Iraqi army and police units to work with Sons of Iraq groups was initially impossible and remains difficult, U.S. military officials say. The Iraqi government has pledged to hire at least 20 percent of the guards as soldiers or policemen and has agreed to keep the rest on the payroll until they find other jobs.

Capt. Zaid Ayad Obaidi al-Rubaie, one of the key National Police leaders in Dora, spoke glowingly about the Sons of Iraq in his area during a recent visit, as U.S. soldiers listened in.

"They are Iraqi," the captain said, smoking a cigarette in his small office. "We understand each other. From the beginning, the collaboration was very fruitful, and it continues."

But Sons of Iraq leaders say their relationships with police commanders have been forged under heavy U.S. pressure and remain beset by mutual distrust.

"I feel sorry to say this," said Zaied Subhi, a Sons of Iraq leader. "There is no trust between us."

First Lt. Greg Garhart, 26, who supervises more than 400 Sons of Iraq in the Dora area, said the guards who work under him have all but lost hope. None has been admitted into the National Police.

"They kind of see the SOI as a dying organization," he said. "I've had a few quit recently. I don't know if they lost their faith or are afraid of the NP."

Of more than 54,000 Sons of Iraq guards in the Baghdad area, roughly 3,400 have secured jobs in the Iraqi security forces, according to the U.S. military. Despite their misgivings, the vast majority have registered to continue getting paid by the Iraqi government.

U.S. soldiers see Sons of Iraq leaders as extraordinary sources of intelligence, but what makes them so attractive as allies — their connections to the insurgency — is also what makes the prospect of their dissolution so alarming.

John recently visited al-Kurtani to seek information about a Katyusha rocket that narrowly missed the small outpost in Dora where his platoon is assigned.

"How does a (expletive) rocket the size of two of my weapons get into the 'mahallas' without SOI seeing it," John asked teasingly, using the Arabic word for neighborhood.

After a lengthy back-and-forth between al-Kurtani and his aides, John's interpreter quietly told the lieutenant that a cousin of one of al-Kurtani's deputies may have been involved.

The next day, another Sons of Iraq group spotted two men fiddling with a small billboard fixed to a light post along a main road. Police arrested the men and found, inside the double-paneled billboard, a rocket attached to a triggering device.

Under stern questioning by John, one of the men began to weep and said he knew nothing about the rocket. But field tests for explosives residue on their hands were positive.

"How much did they pay you to do this?" demanded John.

In one of the men's pockets, police found two crisp $50 bills. Later that day, John told his men to keep looking for similar booby traps and found a billboard disguising a mortar launcher.

Special correspondent Aziz Alwan contributed to this report.