Iraq's new prime minister announced an agreement Monday by nine political parties to dissolve their militias, integrating some of the 100,000 fighters into the army and police and pensioning off the rest to firm up government control ahead of the transfer of sovereignty.
The plan does not cover the most important militia fighting coalition forces — the al-Mahdi Army of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search) — or smaller groups that have sprouted across the country since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime in April 2003.
Nevertheless, the announcement by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi (search) is seen as a significant step toward extending the control of the central government that will take power at the end of the month. The agreement, if it works, would also significantly reduce the threat of civil war after the U.S.-led occupation formally ends.
Previous attempts to abolish the militias failed, but the current drive may have a better chance of succeeding because of the reintegration plan for the fighters and the fact that most are controlled by groups that are part of the new government.
"We want to disband the Badr Brigade and to enable its members to join the new Iraqi army and police forces and serve the new Iraq," said Dr. Haitham al-Husseini, a top official in the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which controls the 15,000-strong Badr Brigade, a Shiite group.
Jassim al-Hilfi, a member of the central committee of the Iraqi Communist Party (search), said his group was willing to disband its armed components because "we want to be part of the new Iraq."
Also Monday, roadside bombs killed an American soldier south of Baghdad and wounded three civilians working for a British security firm in the northern city of Mosul, authorities said. The attacks came after a weekend in which five civilian workers — including two Americans — were killed in two separate shootings.
Under the interim constitution adopted in March, armed groups outside government control will be banned as of June 30 when power transfers from the U.S.-run occupation authority to the new interim administration.
Coalition officials said the agreement announced Monday makes the ban effective immediately.
Some of the nine militias have effectively dissolved already, and others, notably two Kurdish groups, have been allied with the Americans for years.
The occupation authority had been preparing the plan to abolish militias for months. But the announcement was made by Allawi in what appeared to be a move to enhance his stature.
Al-Sadr's al-Mahdi Army (search) was excluded because it did not want "to work within the political system, within the political process," one coalition official said on condition of anonymity.
U.S. officials want to disband the al-Mahdi Army and arrest al-Sadr for the April 2003 murder of a rival cleric, although authorities have deferred both goals to reduce tensions in the Shiite heartland south of Baghdad. Instead, the coalition has opted to let Allawi, himself a Shiite, and Shiite clerics deal with al-Sadr.
The agreement also does not cover the brigade organized by the U.S. Marines to take control of the Sunni city of Fallujah after the end of the three-week siege in April. U.S. officials described the Fallujah brigade as "a special auxiliary unit" under the nominal control of the Marines.
Most of the militias covered by the agreement were organized to fight Saddam. Under the program, the estimated 100,000 fighters will be treated as veterans — eligible for government benefits including pensions and job placement programs depending on their time in service.
Others, including the peshmerga fighters of the two main Kurdish parties — the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdish Democratic Party (search) — will be integrated into the police, army and border security force. Officials of both parties are members of the new government.
Participating militias will hand in their weapons to the Ministry of Interior. Those fighters who join government security services or job training programs will do so as individuals rather than as units, coalition officials said. The program will cost about $200 million, with the disbanding of the militias to be completed next year.
"We agreed that the peshmerga will enter the Iraqi army and the border forces of Kurdistan," said Araz Sheikh Zinji of the PUK in Sulaimaniyah. "We agreed with what Dr. Ayad Allawi said."
The Kurdish units are believed to number about 75,000 fighters based in areas of northern Iraq that have been under Kurdish control since 1991. The other major militia covered by the agreement is the Badr Brigade.
The remainder of the fighters covered by the agreement come from militias of Allawi's Iraqi National Accord, the Iraqi National Congress, the Shiite Dawa party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, Iraqi Hezbollah and the Iraqi Communist Party.
Abolition of the armed militias had been a goal of the occupation authority since the collapse of Saddam's regime. However, little progress had been made because of the precarious security situation in Iraq.
The Supreme Council balked at disbanding the Badr Brigade after its leader, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, was assassinated last year in Najaf.
And the Kurdish parties insisted they needed the peshmergas, who fought alongside American troops last year, as protection against Saddam loyalists and terrorists.