YOUSSIFIYAH, Iraq - A top U.S. commander warned Tuesday that Sunnis who fight al-Qaida 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 separate 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 told The Associated Press 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 another 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."
U.S. officials have said there are plans to absorb about 20,000 of the men into the security forces, and America plans to spend $155 million to help create new jobs and provide vocational training. The Iraqi government has pledged to match that amount
"I see great progress because citizens are taking things into their own hands. Now we have to connect the dots," Lynch said. "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 U.S. will back up local forces.
"We are there living with them now," he said. "They want to be free from fear."
At patrol base Copper, just south of the capital, one of Lynch's captains said it was the main motivation behind many of the groups.
"Families were forced out by al-Qaida in Iraq. ... They want to come back and form concerned local citizens groups and push al-Qaida out," said Capt. George Morris, of Boston.
Lynch spent Christmas flying to Copper and more than a half-dozen other bases in the area, ranging from a 3-day-old patrol base where troops lighted open fires to keep warm and slept in their fighting vehicles, to a full-fledged battalion headquarters located at the partially built Youssifiyah power plant, 12 miles south of Baghdad.
He handed out gifts to his troops and also spent time quizzing his commanders about what they need on the ground.
Lynch is not alone in calling for the groups to be absorbed. Iraq's Sunni Arab vice president said Monday that failing to bring them into the fold of Iraq's security forces could jeopardize the recent improvements in security.
Members of the groups have become targets.
On Tuesday, 10 people were killed and five were wounded in a suicide bombing in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, the U.S. military said. Local officials said a bomber wearing an explosives vest targeted a funeral procession for two members of an Awakening Council group.
Local police said the two were killed by U.S. forces in a dawn raid in Baqouba. The U.S. military confirmed two people were killed in the raid and said at least one member was a member of the anti al-Qaida groups.
In the other suicide attack, a truck bomb exploded outside a residential complex belonging to a state-run oil company in the town of Beiji, about 155 miles north of Baghdad, killing 25 people and injuring 80, police and hospital officials said.