Today, the original Awakening movement members in Anbar -- now commonly known as the "Sons of Iraq" -- are preparing for another first: They are transferring from coalition to Iraqi control and preparing for new jobs in the service of their country.
"They have invested in the future of Iraq, and the government of Iraq is offering them hope and an opportunity to play yet another important role in the future of this country," Army Lt. Col. Jeffrey Kulmayer, chief of reconciliation and engagement for Multinational Corps Iraq, said. "They're going to be part of that."
The transfer process -- dubbed "the leading edge of reconciliation" by the corps' deputy commanding general, Army Maj. Gen. Michael Ferriter -- begins Feb. 1. On that date, Anbar's Sons of Iraq will join thousands of other members across the country, transferring from the coalition forces to the responsibility of the Iraqi government, which has promised them long-term employment in the army, police, civil service and other job fields.
The groundwork for the transfer was set in late December in a series of meetings between Sons of Iraq leaders and Iraqi government representatives.
"The government invited the [Sons of Iraq] leaders to stand up and ask questions," Kulmayer said. "And some of them ask pretty tough questions."
In Anbar, the Sons of Iraq leaders' concerns revolved around how their men would be paid and employed after coalition forces handed the reins over to the Iraqis. The registration process has been challenging, but all parties agree that the Sons of Iraq should be taken care of, given their sacrifices and contributions to normalcy and peace in western Iraq, officials said.
"In 2008, approximately 500 Sons of Iraq have been killed in the line of duty, and more than 750 wounded," Kulmayer said. "That's men out there risking their lives to secure and protect Iraqi citizens and their neighborhoods. It's a substantial sacrifice."
Judging from previous transfers, the sacrifices of Anbar's Sons of Iraq will not go unrewarded. In Baghdad -- home to more than half the nation's Sons of Iraq -- members already have received their second monthly paychecks from the Iraqi government. Many now are in training to be police officers or workers for a variety of civic projects and other meaningful jobs.
"We've learned a lot of lessons from Baghdad," retired Iraqi army Maj. Gen. Muzhir al-Mawla, representative of Iraq's Implementation and Follow-Up Committee for National Reconciliation, said.
The transfer has special significance in Anbar province, where the original Awakening movement was born, officials said. In late 2006, Anbar was among the most violent areas of Iraq, with elements of al-Qaida in Iraq operating freely in populated areas.
Al-Qaida had launched a deadly campaign of intimidation and violence against Anbar's citizens, which included the indiscriminate killings of dozens of innocent Iraq men, women and children, as well as coalition and Iraqi security forces. It was here that dissatisfied Sunni tribal leaders first found common ground with the coalition against al-Qaida and started neighborhood watches to push the terrorist group out of their communities.
"We helped organize them and eventually began to fund them to provide critical infrastructure and security throughout Anbar," Ferriter said, "And it quickly spread to many of the other provinces."
Some of the Sons of Iraq previously had fought against the coalition. But Ferriter points out that "reconciliation is something you do with your adversaries, not your friends." And, as he told a group of Sons of Iraq leaders Dec. 20 in Anbar, "There is a common agreement: We don't want these men to turn to al-Qaida."
The Sons of Iraq volunteers' success in Anbar helped turn the tide of war in dramatic fashion. Today, Anbar averages less than one attack per day, and the province was returned to Iraqi control in September, officials said.
"The blows we have struck against al-Qaida in Anbar have implications far beyond Anbar's borders," White House officials said in a news release.
Kulmayer said he is confident that the Sons of Iraq transfer will be no less historic. "It's so important to look at this as a reconciliation issue," he noted. "If you go back to the beginning, you had insurgents who reconciled with the coalition. And now we're following that up with a reconciliation between the Sons of Iraq and their own government.
"That," he said, "is the way to put Iraq back together."