RAMADI, Iraq, Aug. 11 (UPI) -- Al-Qaida in Iraq is exploiting the political vacuum and pending departure of U.S. combat troops in Iraq by courting tribal security forces, leaders said.
The U.S. military put former Sunni insurgents on its payroll in 2008 to wrestle the restive province of Anbar away from al-Qaida forces. The group, Sons of Iraq, later became the Iraqi backbone of the counterinsurgency strategy dubbed "the surge."
Sabah al-Janabi, the tribal leader of the Anbar Awakening Councils, which spawned the force, told London's Guardian newspaper that several members of the Sons of Iraq were taking payments from al-Qaida.
"This is my neighborhood and I know every single person living here," he said. "And I know where their allegiances lie now."
He said al-Qaida in Iraq was making a comeback as U.S. combat forces wrap up their mission and Baghdad enters its fifth month without a new government.
Al-Qaida in Iraq last month planted its flag over several police checkpoints in the Iraqi capital.
The U.S. military handed authority over the Sons of Iraq over to Baghdad in 2008, leaving the program mired in corruption and suffering from payment delays.
Zuheir Chalabi, who directs a reconciliation campaign associated with the Awakening Council, downplayed the defections, saying the numbers of soldiers leaving the force were minuscule.
"We have no indications that large numbers of Sons of Iraq have left their jobs," he said.