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Time to Bailout the Sons of Iraq?

Meanwhile back in Iraq, this past weekend saw clashes between Iraqi security forces, U.S. troops and fighters belonging to the Sunni Awakening Council, or "Sons of Iraq," in U.S. military parlance. Today come reports that the rebellious Sunni militia has been forcibly disarmed and disbanded, the first time that has been done with an Awakenings group, and it will not be allowed to reform.

The former Sunni insurgents turned paid security guards will be “offered an opportunity” to join Iraq’s security forces. Hard to say how genuine those job offers will be, coming from Maliki’s largely Shiite government that has proven reluctant to hire ex-Sunni insurgents. Lack of government jobs has been one of the Awakenings group’s major gripes.

Things in Iraq remain tenuous. As we’ve noted, this past month has seen several high-profile, mass casualty attacks by Sunni insurgents both in Baghdad and up north in and around Mosul. A suicide bombing today in Mosul killed or wounded dozens. A lot of stirrings on the Sunni side of the ledger as U.S. troops pull out of the cities, consolidate on bases and the foreign policy establishment shifts it focus to Afghanistan-Pakistan.

I heard Iraq analyst Stephen Biddle recently say that U.S. troops in Iraq are maintaining what amounts to a nationwide "ceasefire" between the Sunnis and Shia. Absent those troops, the country could easily descend back into civil war. Tom Ricks sees the potential unraveling of the deals struck between the U.S. and the Sunnis that removed tens-of-thousands of fighters from the battlefield and were so instrumental in the drop in violence in Iraq over the past two years.

The key to those deals is that the money must continue flowing. Saddam Hussein co-opted the Sunni tribal leaders by funneling money, land and favors their way, which in turn allowed them to keep their patronage networks alive and well, and thus retain power. During 2007-2008, the U.S. took on the role of funding that tribal patronage system through the Awakening, putting some 100,000 former insurgents on the U.S. payroll. The Iraqi government was supposed to start paying them.

The thing with mercenaries is they really hate it when they don’t get paid. Ricks puts the monthly payroll for the Sons of Iraq at $30 million. That sum doesn’t seem like a huge amount considering Iraq is sitting on enormous oil reserves. But oil is no longer trading at $140 a barrel as it was last year. In a number of conference calls with reporters in recent weeks, military officials have repeatedly pointed to the collapse of oil prices leading to budget shortfalls for the Baghdad government. British Army General Mark Lacey, MNSTC-I deputy commander, put the loss of oil revenues at the top of his list of challenges facing Iraq in 2009.

There are still around 140,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq and Gen. Petraeus and Gen. Odierno are not about to let things spiral out of control there. But if these clashes between the Sunni Awakenings groups and the Baghdad government’s security forces continue, there will likely be delays in the withdrawal timetable, which could then have spillover effects on efforts to boost troop strength and needed intelligence and other high priority assets in Afghanistan.

The Maliki government has hired only a handful of the former Sunni fighters and many complain they aren't being paid. It may be time to put the Awakenings groups back on the U.S. payroll. It would be the U.S. government’s wisest bailout to date.

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