View Full Version : Paying Iraqis not to bomb is smart

10-04-08, 06:16 AM
Dillow in Iraq: Paying Iraqis not to bomb is smart
Iraqi version of 'neighborhood watch' keeps violence down.
Gordon Dillow
The Orange County Register

KARMAH, IRAQ – Opponents of the war in Iraq often criticize the costs of the conflict, not only in lives but in money. And it's true that at hundreds of billions of dollars – estimates vary – the financial cost of the war has been enormous.

But Americans should remember that just like a tank or an M-16, money is a weapon. And here in this corner of the war, a relatively small amount of cash can buy a lot of good in Karmah.

As noted in my last column, Karmah is a town and district of about 50,000 predominately Sunni Muslims situated between Baghdad and Fallujah. Although insurgents remain a stubborn threat, as in other areas of al-Anbar province, the violence level has dropped dramatically in recent months – at least partly because of the money we've spent here.

Some of the U.S. money spent in Karmah has been for traditional "reconstruction" projects: $100,000 for rebuilding schools, $200,000 for a new medical clinic, $300,000 to rebuild a water treatment plant. The Iraqi government has also funded hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of projects, with that amount planned to increase as American participation lessens.

But perhaps the most cost-effective U.S. money spent here has been spent on the "Sons of Iraq," known as "SOIs" or "Sahawas."

The Sons of Iraq are the armed paramilitary fighters who with their local sheiks revolted against al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and allied themselves with U.S. forces. Wearing civilian clothes and armed with AK-47s or other automatic weapons, the SOIs – many of them former insurgents – man highway checkpoints and generally act as an Iraqi version of a "neighborhood watch."

There are some 100,000 SOIs in Iraq, about 1,500 of them active in the Karmah area. Their pay varies, but in Karmah it is about $130 a month, provided directly by U.S. military commanders.

"There were a lot of (AQI) terrorists here before, a lot of bodies in the streets," Lowy Naji, 39, told me through an interpreter as he and other AK-47-toting SOIs manned a checkpoint on a road north of Karmah. "We were provoked to help out and provide security."

As for his own past insurgent ties, if any, Naji, a former soldier in Saddam Hussein's army, really didn't want to discuss it – perhaps understandably, given the fact that he is now working for the U.S. Marines.

If it seems surprising to folks back home that former insurgents are on the U.S. taxpayer payroll, it shouldn't be. Because in al-Anbar province, the insurgency has always been largely a cash business.

Yes, suicide bombers and hard-core AQI members may have been motivated by misguided conviction. But for your average mortar-lobbing, IED-planting, otherwise unemployed insurgent mope, getting paid $200 or so by insurgency leaders to place a roadside bomb was a job opportunity, not a cause. For us to pay him less than that not to plant roadside bombs is simply a matter of pragmatism.

"It's cheap at the price," says Lt. Col. Andrew Milburn, commander of 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment. And he's right; for the replacement cost of one blown-up Humvee – not to mention the priceless and irreplaceable human losses – we can pay every SOI in Karmah for a month of not shooting at us.

True, paying SOIs doesn't give Marines here quite the same feeling of satisfaction as helping to build a school or a hospital. As one Marine sergeant puts, "It sucks that we're paying these guys not to do what they shouldn't be doing in the first place. But it's worth it."

Yes it is. In fact, it is a bargain and a half.

It won't go on forever. The plan is for the more competent and trustworthy SOIs to be incorporated into the main Iraqi security forces and be paid by them. The others will be put to work on canal cleaning, trash pickup and other jobs. Those who don't want to work, and who may slide back into the insurgency, will be in greatly reduced numbers and thus be much less of a threat.

It's classic counterinsurgency doctrine. Co-opt the enemy, give him an alternative to insurgency, and every day he's not fighting you is another day to improve and professionalize the government security forces.

Paying the Sons of Iraq may not be a perfect system, but Iraq is an imperfect place.

And there's no denying that for a relatively small amount of our treasure, we are saving a lot of our blood.

CONTACT THE WRITER GordonDillow@gmail.com You can see more of Dillow's columns and photos from Iraq at www.ocregister.com.