While doubts about the wisdom of hiring a group of rag-tag Sunni militias--the so-called "Iraqi Awakening" or "Sons of Iraq"--to do our dirty work in combating al-Qaida in Iraq have long been common fare of skeptics of the surge, a new report just released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), "Securing, Stabilizing, and Rebuilding Iraq," gives official weight to these concerns. One of the first governmental reports to express ambivalence about the long-term commitment of these Sunni militias to U.S. goals in Iraq, it emphasizes normalization of the groups into mainstream Iraqi political and security bodies is proceeding at a snail's-pace. Jobless, disenfranchised, and armed to the teeth, the "Awakening" militias could quickly become a nightmare for the Maliki government--and for our hopes to stabilize Iraq--if steps towards their incorporation into the Iraqi state are not promptly taken. Indeed, while critics have long worried that these groups could turn against coalition and Iraqi forces, the report suggests that this could already be happening:

Despite their relative success and growing numbers, during early 2008 some tribal security forces temporarily withdrew their support of [coalition forces] and the Iraqi security forces in Diyala and Babil provinces. Fraying relations between these groups and the Iraqi government in Anbar province caused a spike in violence in this area.

Even more worrisome, the GAO points out that our current "New Way Forward" strategy lacks a "cohesive plan" for how to forestall this meltdown. Until we come up with a blueprint for how to facilitate the transition of these groups from vigilante militias into committed partners in the Iraqi state, the report soberly suggests, our recent progress on security in Iraq--which has been afforded in great part by their cooperation--may be only short-lived.

 --James Martin