WASHINGTON - A program that pays Sunni fighters who turn against Al Qaeda in Iraq - a cornerstone of US strategy - has channeled tens of millions of dollars through tribal sheiks who routinely take a hefty percentage for themselves.
US officials tout the fact that the program, credited for a dramatic drop in violence, pays formerly unemployed tribal fighters a monthly salary of about $300 to secure their areas against Islamic militants. But US military leaders in Iraq also acknowledged in interviews that it is the sheik who commands the fighters who initially receives the money, which can add up to $60,000 a month and $720,000 per year for a sheik with 200 fighters.
Current and former US officials privately estimate that some sheiks keep 20 percent or more of the money.
"Some sheiks do take some off the top," Colonel Martin Stanton, chief of reconciliation and engagement with the multinational forces in Iraq, acknowledged in a telephone interview. "But that's just their cultural model, and compared to the good its done and the chance that we have to go forward and bring peace, it's been well worth it."
But as US military forces draw down in the coming months and make plans to hand the program over to the Iraqi government, the funneling of money to Sunni sheiks has alarmed some US officials and members of the Shi'ite-led Iraqi government, who fear that the Sunnis could resume their attacks against either the government or Shi'ite militias if and when the cash dries up.
They say the United States needs to develop a longer-term strategy to ensure that the sheiks continue to support the Iraqi government when the US funds disappear.
"We're not thinking through the impact of abetting further corruption and perpetuating tribal power," said a senior US military adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
So far, the US military has spent $70 million on the program, which began last summer in the city of Ramadi and swiftly transformed Anbar from one of the most dangerous provinces into one of the most peaceful. The payment program spread rapidly into other Sunni tribal areas, where Al Qaeda had formerly found sanctuary. It now includes an estimated 80,000 individual fighters in 300 separate groups known as "concerned citizens councils."
The program has been credited by US commanders as a key factor in the 60 percent drop in violence since June, as former Sunni insurgents joined US and Iraqi forces in expelling terrorists from their neighborhoods and towns.
But Iraqi officials have long been wary of the program. Some feel that while the first tribes to join the program were sincere in their willingness to fight Al Qaeda, many of the more recent ones are simply doing it for the money.
And US officials have acknowledged that the strategy carries the risk of funding well-armed Sunni militias that could turn against the Shi'ite government if the money dries up. To stop that from happening, US and Iraqi officials are now scrambling to develop a plan to absorb some of the Sunni tribal fighters into institutions controlled by the Iraqi government.
So far, the Iraqi government has said it would accept about 20 percent of the Sunni "concerned citizens" into the Shi'ite-dominated army or police. US officials hope that as Iraq becomes more peaceful, many of the remaining men can be transitioned as soon as next summer into a newly created Civilian Service Corps modeled after the Depression-era US work crews of the 1930s. The US government has budgeted $150 million to pay the Sunni tribal groups this year and the Iraqi government has pledged a similar amount.
But critics in both the United States and Iraqi governments note that the money won't last forever. And even if many of the low-skilled fighters are given peaceful jobs with paychecks, the sheiks stand to lose huge amounts of income if their fighters disperse.
"I definitely think that would bring some challenges" if the sheiks' funding were cut, acknowledged Lieutenant Colonel Robert Balcavage, commander of a battalion in the 25th Infantry Division stationed south of Baghdad.
Balcavage said the Americans have to persuade Shi'ite leaders to accept more Sunnis into the government and military. Once the fighters are integrated into the Iraqi forces, the United States can begin to scale back its funds.
Few places better illustrate the achievements and the potential for corruption of the program than Jurf As Sukhr, a Sunni farming town 25 miles south of Baghdad, where Balcavage met last fall with Sheik Sabah Al-Janabi, a former enemy of the Americans, and signed him up to help secure the area.
For years, the town had been an insurgent stronghold. Last spring, Balcavage's soldiers were attacked on a daily basis. The new police station was bombed by insurgents two weeks after it opened. The local electricity tower, known as Tower 57, which channels about 10 percent of Baghdad's power, was blown up each time it was rebuilt.
But in late August, Sabah approached Balcavage. The sheik complained bitterly that Al Qaeda militants were forcing his tribe's daughters into marriage and kidnapping their sons. He said he had heard about the funds that Americans were giving sheiks in Anbar to fight Al Qaeda.
For two weeks, Balcavage haggled with Sabah. Finally, the American commander agreed to pay Sabah the equivalent of $300 a month for each of 175 fighters - $52,500 - to secure the town and some main roads. Sabah also recruited sub-sheiks who were paid similar amounts to secure their own areas. By November, 4,000 tribal fighters in the area were on Balcavage's payroll.
The new forces gave US and Iraqi forces the protection they needed to push north into areas that had previously been too dangerous to enter. They moved up the Euphrates River, clearing out militants and weapons.
"It was extremely successful," said Thomas Timberman, a former leader of the Provincial Reconstruction Team that was embedded with Balcavage's brigade.
Within weeks, Jurf As Sukhr came back to life, Timberman said. Shops opened and crowds gathered once again on the streets. With Balcavage's help, the Shi'ite-led government appointed Sabah the mayor. Now, a steady stream of American visitors marvel at the progress. Attacks by explosives fell from 56 last January to six in October, Balcavage said. Mortar attacks fell from 27 in January to one in October. And tribal fighters have guarded Tower 57, which has remained standing for months.
But US officials also acknowledge that Sabah was taking an "administrative fee" for bringing the peace. Timberman said he did not know the percentage, but added: "Even 5 percent could amount to real money."
Balcavage said the sheik was free to use the money however he chose. "We told the sheiks up front: 'We are not going to pay the individuals. This is about Iraqi leaders taking responsibility for their areas. It is up to you to distribute the money.' "
He said the payments have saved lives. "Because it includes the leadership of the sheiks, I think it is more likely to succeed than to merely superimpose a US governance directly onto them," Balcavage said.
Joost Hiltermann, a specialist on Iraq with the International Crisis Group, said paying off tribal warlords is they way "things have been done in Iraq for a long time." But he warned that the strategy has often backfired - either because the sheiks become too corrupt and lose control of the area, or because they shift allegiances once the payments run out.