50,000 former fighters now in Iraqi jobs

BAGHDAD — Nearly 50,000 Sunni fighters who sided with American forces against al-Qaida and other militants in Iraq are now in government jobs, a top official said today in an attempt to soothe fears they would be neglected by the country’s Shiite leaders.

Many of the former fighters, part of a group known as the Sons of Iraq, were themselves former insurgents who switched sides to try to subdue violence. The U.S. has been urging Iraq’s Shiite-led government to find jobs for the fighters to promote national unity and maintain security as American troops begin to leave the country.

Mohammed Salman al-Saadi, chairman of Iraq’s Implementation and Follow-up Committee for National Reconciliation, told a press conference in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone that Iraq hopes to put the rest of the estimated 96,000 Sons of Iraq in government jobs by summer.

The positions are being filled even though no new state jobs were created for other Iraqis last year because of budget problems, he said.

“This is a major indication of the seriousness the Iraqi government places on the Sons of Iraq,” he said.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government, under heavy U.S. pressure, has reluctantly agreed to absorb 20 percent of the fighters — organized into what are known as awakening councils — into the government’s security forces. Al-Saadi said that process is now nearly complete.

About 10,000 of the fighters in Baghdad have been integrated into the Ministry of Interior’s security forces. Of the 40,000 other Sons of Iraq members in the capital, about 30,000 have already been transferred to various government ministries, he said.

In provinces outside Baghdad, close to one-fifth of the fighters also have been assigned to security services, al-Saadi said. Providing jobs for the remaining 80 percent, however, won’t happen until after parliamentary elections in March.

The U.S. began handing over control in 2008 of the awakening councils to Iraq, which pays their roughly $300 monthly salaries.

Since then, many Sons of Iraq have complained about missing paychecks — prompting accusations among some Sunnis that the government is not serious about integration efforts.

Al-Saadi acknowledged there had been payment problems, but he blamed the difficulties on technical snags.

“It wasn’t a political decision,” he said, adding that he was certain salaries are now being paid.

Elsewhere in Iraq, a police official in Salahuddin province said that four al-Qaida operatives escaped early today in a jailbreak from a police station in the town of Yathrib, about 50 miles north of Baghdad.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information to the media, said two of the escaped convicts had been sentenced to death over sectarian killings in the area.

Police officers in Yathrib police station confirmed the jailbreak.

The officials said the four prisoners escaped through the ventilation system, and police forces are now searching for them in nearby farms and orchards.

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