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US Sunni allies in Iraq are targeted

BAGHDAD - Muhannad Mahmoud can’t find a place in the new Iraq.

The American military, which hired him and more than 80,000 other Sunni fighters to take on Al Qaeda-affiliated insurgents, just left. But the insurgents have not.

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The Iraqi government, increasingly dominated by Shi’ite powers, is leery about hiring the fighters as security forces. And even if Mahmoud were able to land such a job, some of his fellow Sunnis are so distrustful of the new government that they would label him a traitor.

As a member of the Sons of Iraq, who were widely credited with helping the United States restore stability to the country several years ago, Mahmoud and his brethren say they have been pushed to the side - even as insurgents come after them daily.

“I am ready to fight them again,’’ Mahmoud said recently, taking a break from his job repairing power lines that run from a neighborhood generator to homes and businesses.

For years, the Iraqi government has struggled to carry out a US-brokered plan to find military or police jobs for the Sunni fighters - some of them genuine heroes, some of them former insurgents themselves. How the government treats them over the coming months could present a chance for reconciliation - or threaten to widen the country’s sectarian divide, especially if Sons of Iraq members strike out on their own, or, worse, defect to groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq.

These days, even with the increased violence, the Sons of Iraq stand out, targeted by daily assassination attempts. In Iraq, they are known more broadly by the term Sahwa. In January, four Iraqis connected to Sahwa were assassinated in one day.

Two died when simultaneous blasts erupted outside their homes outside Fallujah. Another, Hassan Abdulla al-Timimi, who had risen to the rank of captain in the Abu Ghraib police force, was gunned down by insurgents who stormed his house and also killed his wife and three children, said Colonel Sabah al-Falahi, a police commander in the area. A fourth, Mullah Nadem Jabouri, was shot by assassins armed with silenced pistols, according to security officials.

Jabouri was once a member of Al Qaeda in Iraq, but he renounced the group in 2007 and persuaded many Sunnis to fight against the terrorist organization. For the past two years he had been living in Jordan, but he was visiting Iraq and speaking with Sahwa and Sunni leaders.

“They’re the most targeted and vulnerable people in Iraq,’’ said Sterling Jensen, who studies the movement at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies and served as an Arabic interpreter for US commanders here during the war.

“We’re wanted by all the terrorists,’’ said Mustaf Shibib al-Jubouri, a Sons of Iraq leader who has survived four car bombings and estimates that a half-dozen members of the group are attacked daily around the country.

The Sons of Iraq are certainly well known in Adhamiyah, a sprawling Sunni area in northern Baghdad. In 2007, as Al Qaeda in Iraq took over the area, Mahmoud learned that US commanders were rounding up fighters and paying about $300 a month. The effort was a key element of the US strategy to turn the tide of the war.

Mahmoud fought in major battles against insurgents and helped patrol Adhamiyah’s streets. Reports of the Sons of Iraq spread to residents who had fled.

By 2008, the Sons of Iraq ranks had swelled to 100,000, including a small contingent of Shi’ite fighters. The United States transferred full management of the force to the Iraqi government in 2009, with the understanding that 20 percent of the fighters would be given jobs in Iraq’s police or military units and that the government would try to find the others civil service or private-sector jobs. But the process has moved slowly.

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