BAGHDAD – Nearly 50,000 Sunni fighters who sided with American forces against Al Qaeda and other militants in Iraq are now in government jobs, a top official said Tuesday in an attempt to soothe fears they would be neglected by the country's Shiite leaders.
The announcement, made during a press conference at a U.S. military base in the heart of Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, was a reminder that Iraq's sectarian tensions remain raw and risk being stoked further as parliamentary elections approach in a matter of weeks.
Many of the former Sunni fighters, part of a group known as the Sons of Iraq, were themselves former insurgents who switched sides, helping to stabilize the country. The U.S. has been urging Iraq's Shiite-led government to find jobs for the fighters to promote national unity and maintain security as American troops begin to leave the country.
Mohammed Salman al-Saadi, chairman of Iraq's Implementation and Follow-up Committee for National Reconciliation, said Iraq hopes to put the rest of the estimated 96,000 Sons of Iraq in government jobs by summer.
The positions are being filled even though no new state jobs were created for other Iraqis last year because of budget problems, he said.
"This is a major indication of the seriousness the Iraqi government places on the Sons of Iraq," he said.
In the run-up to the key March elections, Sunni Arabs are accusing the Shiite-dominated government of trying to further marginalize it.
An announcement by the city council of the mostly Shiite southern city of Najaf on Monday that all Saddam-aligned members of the Baath Party — the Sunni-dominated former ruling party — would be expelled from the province in a day has apparently not yet been implemented, but it has caused disquiet.
Media around the Arab world highlighted the decision, hinting it could be applied to Sunnis in general.
Hundreds of Sunni politicians have also been disqualified by a government committee from running in elections because of earlier ties to the Baath party.
There were no indications Tuesday that the threat to expel Baathists from Najaf was being carried out, however. The ultimatum was seen as a response to a rare series of deadly bomb attacks that rocked the city last week.
The issue of how to absorb the Awakening fighters is an even more sensitive one because of fears some could become the foot soldiers of any new Sunni insurgency.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government, under heavy U.S. pressure, has reluctantly agreed to absorb 20 percent of the fighters — organized into what are known as Awakening Councils — into the government's security forces. Al-Saadi said that process is now nearly complete.
About 10,000 of the fighters in Baghdad have been integrated into the Ministry of Interior's security forces. Of the 40,000 other Sons of Iraq members in the capital, about 30,000 have already been transferred to various government ministries, he said.
In provinces outside Baghdad, close to one-fifth of the fighters also have been assigned to security services, al-Saadi said. Providing jobs for the remaining 80 percent, however, won't happen until after parliamentary elections in March.
The U.S. began handing over control in 2008 of the Awakening Councils to Iraq, which pays their roughly $300 monthly salaries.
Since then, many Sons of Iraq have complained about missing paychecks — prompting accusations among some Sunnis that the government is not serious about integration efforts.
Al-Saadi acknowledged there had been payment problems, but he blamed the difficulties on technical snags.
"It wasn't a political decision," he said, adding that he was certain salaries are now being paid.
Elsewhere in Iraq, a police official in Salahuddin province said that four Al Qaeda operatives escaped in a jailbreak from a police station in the town of Yathrib, about 50 miles north of Baghdad early Tuesday.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information to the media, said two of the escaped convicts had been sentenced to death over sectarian killings in the area.
Police officers in Yathrib police station confirmed the jailbreak.
The officials said the four prisoners escaped through the ventilation system, and that police forces are now searching for them in nearby farms and orchards.
In another attack, a Katyusha rocket landed close to Baghdad's green zone, though no casualties were reported, according to a police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity.
He said Iraqi soldiers who were near the place where the rocket was believed to have been fired raided the area and arrested three people who were moving in an open field with a small rocket launcher with them.
The U.S. military said it was investigating the incident but had no further details.