In a decrepit classroom in the northern Iraqi city of Hawija, men in their 20s and 30s sit chanting the Arabic alphabet. Dressed in green military camouflage uniforms, they are part of the Awakening movement – Sunni tribesmen, some of them former insurgents, who now work alongside U.S. forces to secure their neighborhoods.
This literacy project is part of a pilot program set up by the U.S. military and designed to provide basic literacy skills to some 500 of these young men. It is run by local Iraqis, and classes began in mid-June.
For Mahmoud Salah Hasan, 25, who has been part of the Awakening movement for two months now, the classes have been helpful. "It's very good. It's basic reading like boy, girl, sun, moon," he says.
Although the course seems to be educating these Iraqis at a very basic level, that's just what the pilot project is aiming for, says 1st Lt. Steven Johnson from the 443rd Civil Affairs battalion, who helped set up the program. "This particular program," Johnson says, "is geared toward getting them third- or fourth-grade educational level in reading, writing and math."
He hopes the training will better prepare the young men to enter the job market. The ultimate objective, Johnson says, is to enable them to pass a basic literacy test that would make them eligible to join the Iraqi security forces.
The Awakening movement has been an integral part of the U.S. military's strategy against al-Qaeda in Iraq. Integrating the militiamen into the Iraqi security forces would not only provide them permanent jobs, it would also help with the reconciliation process.
But, Johnson acknowledges, there are still doubts about the program and whether that will actually happen. "This initial pilot is geared to transitioning them into the Iraqi security forces," he says. "At this time, that has not been guaranteed."
Iraq's Shiite-led government has been reluctant to integrate the Sunni militiamen into the state security forces. So far, only a fraction of the nearly 100,000 Awakening members have been inducted into the Iraqi police and army.
Dr. Ala Mekki, who heads the education committee in the Iraqi parliament, says the Iraqi government is serious about educating these men. "Yes," says Mekki, "it is a serious desire, and we want to educate them and make them ready to be integrated into the Iraqi army and Iraqi security forces and Ministry of Interior."
Another goal is to make this U.S.-funded pilot project the model for a nationwide literacy program, this one wholly funded by the Iraqi government. "This program will spread all over Iraq," beginning in Hawijah, says Mekki. "Later on, we will expand all over Iraqi provinces."
If and when the program does expand, Mekki says it will not be limited to the Awakening groups. It is intended to help all Iraqis — about 5.6 million of whom are illiterate.