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IRAQ: Guns for money

March 28, 2008 |  1:14 pm

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's hopes of forcing Shiite militiamen to hand in their weapons has fallen flat, so he has extended a disarmament deadline and sweetened the deal by offering money in exchange for guns.

A spokesman for the government's Interior Ministry, Abdul Kareem Khalaf, acknowledged today that not a single weapon had been turned in since Maliki ordered the disarmament Wednesday and gave fighters a three-day deadline. The call came as Shiite Muslim militias battled Iraqi security forces in the aftermath of Maliki's crackdown on militiamen. The offensive was launched Tuesday in the southern city of Basra and has since spread to Shiite strongholds across Iraq.

Khalaf said Maliki had extended the deadline until April 8 and that a "financial reward" awaits militiamen who comply. There's no word on how much this reward could be. Maliki has said fighters who disarm must also sign a pledge to refrain from future militia activities and follow Iraqi law.

If it sounds familiar, that's because this is similar to the model in use by U.S. forces as they work to keep former insurgents from resuming anti-U.S. activities. That program, launched in late 2006, has been aimed mainly at Sunni Muslims who once supported the insurgency but who, for a variety of reasons, have opted out of the fight.

Now, some 80,000 of them receive about $10 per day from the United States military in exchange for manning checkpoints in their neighborhoods and bolstering security. Before earning their positions in the so-called Sons of Iraq program, they had to go through background checks and sign pledges of loyalty to the Iraqi government.

That system has its own problems, as the Times reported in a recent story that outlined the potential pitfalls of paying people not to shoot you. But getting the Sunnis to agree to the deal was not as difficult as it could be to get Shiites to accept a guns-for-money plan. As analysts such as Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations has noted, the Sunnis are vastly outnumbered in Iraq. Unlike the one-time Sunni fighters who switched loyalties, Shiite militiamen have a far better chance of coming out on top in the power struggles raging across Iraq.

"The real tough nuts are the Shiite militias," Biddle said in an interview with the Times last year, as he discussed the chances of success of President George W. Bush's plan of using additional American troops to pacify Iraq. The Sunnis, he explained, saw themselves as "potential losers" in any Iraqi conflict, so they had plenty to gain by switching sides.

"The big hurdles to overcome are persuading the people who think they're going to win a civil war to settle for less," he said.

That's the headache facing Maliki. Sadr militiamen and loyalists say they have no intention of stopping their resistance to the current offensive. Some warn it will make them more determined to fight.

"It is up to Maliki whether there will be detente," said Abu Ali, a Mahdi Army member who took part in a large march in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood to protest the situation. He said violence would soar if Maliki did not call off his troops. "We will be more determined. Enough humiliation!"

Maliki, meanwhile, has turned to outside help in Basra. U.S. forces killed three "criminal enemy militia" members during an air strike on Thursday night, the U.S. military said. It was not immediately clear if the Navy warplane used in the strike dropped bombs or strafed the mortar-launching position with cannon fire.

Initially, a British military spokesman, Maj. Tom Holloway, said two U.S. bombs were dropped. Holloway said the Iraqis requested air support and that the targets happened to be in the radar of American jets flying overhead. Later, he said he was mistaken and that cannon fire was used. A U.S. statement confirmed the American action but not the type of weapon fired.

Holloway said U.S. and British jets have been flying over the city 24 hours a day since Tuesday.

--Tina Susman in Baghdad

Photo: U.S.-backed guards, or Sons of Iraq, attend a post near a mosque in Baghdad. In quieter areas of Iraq, the U.S. is trying to move guards into nonmilitary jobs. Credit: Sabah Arar / AFP / Getty Images