Balad, Iraq (AP) - School teacher Raad Mohammed Mahdi used to take on another role after classes: foot soldier in the Sunni insurgency north of Baghdad.
He grew weary of his double life last year and wanted to lay down his arms. The problem was he didn't know how to surrender formally without facing possible jail time.
Last week, Mahdi entered a U.S. military base and signed a form that amounts to a personal truce. More than 140 other men came the next day after learning that soldiers did not detain Mahdi, whose late brother was an insurgent leader.
It marked some of the first steps in a new U.S.-Iraqi program to offer a way out for those who renounce violence--part of widening attempts at national reconciliation as sectarian violence shows signs of easing.
The latest offer promises a clean slate for fighters if they claim their only targets were American troops. It also pledges a "fair" legal process for those wanted for attacks on Iraqis troops or civilians.
Since the program was expanded this month to Sunni areas near Balad, more than 300 men have surrendered. Most have been released, although 76 were given a court date to face Iraqi charges.
Mahdi was one of the first to take up the offer. On May 21, he signed a cease-fire agreement and pledged to follow Iraqi laws.
"We are tired of raids. We want to protect our area by ourselves," the 31-year-old teacher said during a recent interview at the base in Balad, a mostly Shiite city near a major U.S. air base about 50 miles north of Baghdad.
"The policy of the American forces has changed. Now the American forces are on the right track. We have trust in them," he said.
Not all agree. Some men have refused to participate, saying they feared the Americans and the Iraqis would use the written pledge against them.
U.S. and Iraqi officials, however, are hopeful that the program will stem support for the insurgency by giving former fighters an exit.
"There are a lot of guys who kept fighting simply because they didn't have an out," said Lt. Col. Bob McCarthy, commander of the 1st Squadron, 32nd Cavalry Regiment that operates in the Balad area. "At the end of the day, if they've quit fighting we've got to figure out how to let them move forward."
The new reconciliation program comes several months after the Iraqi parliament passed an amnesty law that could free many of the 27,000 detainees held by Iraqis. It's unclear, however, whether the amnesty will speed the release of some of the detainees in U.S. custody.
The program also is a test for an alternative to the so-called Awakening movements--which brings Sunni armed groups into alliances against insurgents led by al-Qaida in Iraq.
In all, more than 1,000 men have taken part in Operation Musalaha, Arabic for Reconciliation, which was launched in January elsewhere in northern Iraq, the military said.
But geography plays a significant role.
Around Balad, Sunnis have been reluctant to join Awakening bands because of tribal rivalries and a deep distrust of Iraqi troops, many of them Shiites.
But the new program gained momentum in the Balad area in recent weeks after U.S. troops killed three key insurgent leaders, including Mahdi's brother. That removed the intimidation factor that had kept many in insurgent ranks, military officials said.
The military also persuaded prominent local Sunni sheiks to order their men to participate. Those who come forward go through a screening process that includes iris scans and fingerprinting.
Mahdi's resume reads like a history of the Sunni-led insurgency.
He said he took up arms against the Americans after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. He later joined the Ansar al-Sunnah militant group and expanded his enemy list to include the Shiite-dominated Iraqi security forces and Shiite militias.
"Anybody would defend his country if it was occupied," he said.
More recently his targets were rival Sunni groups that joined forces with the Americans against al-Qaida in Iraq.
He says he stopped fighting last year after deciding the group was no longer a resistance movement and the U.S. military had shifted tactics to put Iraqi security forces increasingly in the lead.
"We cut ties with our group. We remained at home. But we were still on the wanted lists of the U.S. and Iraqi forces," he said, wearing a white traditional Arab robe and sandals as he sat in a conference room below a memorial board with the pictures of eight slain U.S. soldiers.
The program, however, faces lingering distrust.
One suspected insurgent in the nearby town of Duluiyah, who would only identify himself by his nickname Abu Mohammed, said he learned for the first time that he was on a most-wanted list when he received an application to participate in the program from local tribal members.
"I never committed any act against U.S. troops, nor against any Iraqi," he said. "In any case, I will not sign a written pledge because this would be a kind of conviction against me for a crime that I never committed."
McCarthy, who is from Mechanicsburg, Ill., estimated that probably less than 20 percent of those who have surrendered were members al-Qaida in Iraq. The others, he said, considered themselves the "honorable resistance" that was "focused on fighting coalition or Iraqi security forces but not wanton mayhem inflicted on civilians."
The U.S. military insists those released will be closely monitored and harshly dealt with if they return to violence.
"A majority of these guys are ones who have taken potshots at U.S. forces or got paid $100 to place an IED (roadside bomb)," Capt. Mike Loveall, a company commander from Nashville, Tenn., who works closely with the outlying villages in Balad.
"That doesn't mean they're waving the American flag or even agreeing with us. They're not cheering us, but they're tired of fighting, tired of sleeping outside."
The dirt roads of Akhbar village, a 10-minute drive from Balad, are now filled with men who used to spend their days in hiding because they feared arrest by U.S. forces--constantly on the lookout for military-age males.
"It would be like a ghost town and only women were there," said Qais Dhiab Ahmed, a tribal leader who has taken the lead in encouraging the surrenders.
But the 38-year-old also warned the recent overtures for peace could unravel without tangible progress on creating jobs and tackling hardships such as electricity shortages.
"I cannot guarantee 100 percent that they won't resort to weapons again," he said. "But if they were employed, I could."
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