A meeting Thursday aimed at sowing faith between Iraq's government and leaders of U.S.-funded paramilitary forces instead highlighted distrust between the sides, three weeks before Iraq takes control of the armed groups.
Leaders of the so-called Sons of Iraq disputed Iraqi plans to absorb only 20% of the fighters into the Iraqi military and police, and they expressed doubts that their members would be protected when the U.S. military turned over responsibility for the units to Iraqi officials.
The hand-over of the Sons of Iraq, who are mainly Sunni Arab, to the Shiite Muslim-led government is to begin Oct. 1, and Thursday's gathering was held to iron out differences in the run-up. There were few signs of compromise, however, underscoring concerns that the program credited with bringing down violence nationwide could splinter if the transition does not go smoothly.
"The matter of transferring and ending the Sons of Iraq program is big and not an easy one. It can't be solved in one meeting or session," said Mohammed Salman, the head of a reconciliation committee established by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to oversee the transition. "But we should have mutual trust and goodwill."
But the government has made it clear it has little trust in many of the Sons of Iraq fighters, or in the numbers of them provided by the U.S. military. In Baghdad alone, the United States says, there are 54,000 Sons of Iraq, each receiving $300 a month. It puts the total nationwide at roughly 100,000.
The Iraqi government has said it suspects that the U.S. military number is far too high, and an order signed by Maliki this month requires Sons of Iraq to submit paperwork to Iraqi security forces in their areas of operation so their identities can be checked against U.S. records. Only then will they be paid.
"We want to protect the program from being infiltrated," explained Iraqi army Lt. Gen. Aboud Qanbar. The government has given Sons of Iraq fighters until only the end of September to handle the paperwork and report to their area security force stations.
The plan worries many Sons of Iraq leaders, who say Maliki's government already has begun a campaign of arrest and intimidation against them. U.S. officials, who embraced the program last year as a way to turn around the Sunni insurgency, now say the Iraqi government has the right to arrest fighters it suspects of crimes.
"They have absolutely gone after some" of them, said a senior U.S. official, referring to the groups by their common Iraqi name, Sawhas. The official said that despite Sawha leaders' arguments that they should be forgiven for their pasts in exchange for ushering in stability, some might have committed acts that warrant arrest.
"I've seen at least some stories of some Sawha leaders who have stopped shooting at us and who have stopped shooting at Iraqi police but have thrown a few people off buildings. So should the police arrest them?" the official said. "Maybe they should."
A Sons of Iraq commander in Diyala province, who gave his name as Sabah, said he feared that false arrest warrants awaited fighters who reported to Iraqi security forces to register and get paid. Sabah said 38 had been arrested recently in his area, opening the door to a resurgence of the Al Qaeda in Iraq militant group.
The Sons of Iraq, begun in Anbar province more than a year ago by Sunni sheiks who had turned against the insurgency, are credited with undercutting Al Qaeda in Iraq in its former strongholds, which include Diyala.
In response, the insurgent group has targeted Sons of Iraq, and at least 462 of them have been killed.
Several Sons of Iraq representatives also objected to the Iraqi plan, on the table for months, to take just 20% of the fighters into the pay of the military or police in a nation with high unemployment. "We wanted at least 30%," said Qais Shather Jabouri, representing Sons of Iraq from an area south of Baghdad.
Salman said this was nonnegotiable. "The decision is already made," he told the meeting.