The rise of armed Sunni groups _ who now battle al-Qaida in Iraq instead of fighting U.S. troops _ is widely seen as a major reason for a drop in violence across the country.
But bringing these fighters into the fold of Iraq's security forces _ and sparking a political reconciliation that will allow more Sunnis to participate in the governing process _ is something the Shiite-dominated government is not adequately addressing, analysts say.
Iraqi officials report the number of fighters in the so-called "awakening" councils as about 70,000 and rapidly growing. They expect the number of Sunni fighters in Baghdad alone to grow to 45,000 next year _ a fourfold increase from present figures.
By comparison, the Shiite dominated army and police make up the majority of the 440,000 Iraqi security forces.
Shiite government officials have in recent weeks cautiously praised the fighters for helping reduce violence. But laced into the comments were warnings that represent Shiites' biggest fear: that these groups will become an uncontrollable force and eventually use their guns to escalate a sectarian war that has largely divided Iraq into blocs along religious lines.
"The awakening movement was a response to al-Qaida in Iraq trying to prevent Sunnis from entering the political process," Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi, himself a Sunni Arab, said at a news conference on Saturday.
"The Sunnis' response was an uprising, represented by the awakening groups. Now that al-Qaida has largely been marginalized in certain areas, Sunnis are entering the political arena," al-Obeidi said. "We will see a definite change soon because there is nobody now standing between them and the rest of the Iraqi people."
Sunnis make up about 20 percent of Iraq's population. Under Saddam Hussein _ and during the Ottoman and British rule of Iraq _ they were the dominant political entity. But since Hussein's fall, Sunnis have been politically fractured.
Now that the awakening movement is being credited tamping down violence, the tribal sheiks directing the fighters are demanding more of a political voice. If they do not get it, they may turn their guns back on U.S. and Iraqi forces, something American officials are keenly aware of.
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker told journalists Sunday in Baghdad that the awakening was never envisioned as an independent force.
"We've always felt that they have to link up to the government of Iraq," he said. "That's got to happen or nothing good is coming down the line."
Crocker also noted that violence has fallen in Iraq because of what he said appeared to be a conscious decision by Iran's leaders to halt support of Shiite militias.
"There have been some signs, indicators that Iran is using some influence to bring down violence," he said. "How lasting a phenomenon that will be and how Iran defines its role in 2008 will be important to Iraq's long-term future."
Iraq's government has said it wants to regularize about 25 percent of the Sunni fighters into its security forces, but only 5 percent of the fighters have been absorbed into the force so far. The rest will be given vocational training.
Deepening the uncertainty is the refusal of Iraqi officials to give anything but scant details about what this job training would consist of. Nor do they adequately address the problem of finding a job for these trained gunmen. Crocker said Iraq is matching $155 million that the U.S. has set aside for "employment creation" funds, but that a strategy for carrying it out was still being planned.
In December, the unemployment rate for Iraq's work force was 17.6 percent and underemployment stood at 38.1 percent, according to Iraq's Central Statistical Organization. Experts suggest those rates are much higher, given the difficulty of collecting data.
Even if the government meets its 25-percent absorption target, 75 percent of the irregulars will likely face unemployment, a situation analysts say could push them back into the fight against U.S. and Iraqi forces.
Deborah D. Avant, director of international studies at the University of California-Irvine and author of the book "The Market for Force: The Consequences of Privatizing Security," said there are ominous similarities between the awakening councils and armed groups in past conflicts that were used for short-term military gains but ended up being roadblocks for state building.
The awakening groups represent a deadly force that authorities probably cannot control, which "isn't a good thing for the long-term prospects of a central government in Iraq," Avant said.
"I think it is just one more way in which the U.S. is inhibiting the consolidation of a central state in Iraq," Avant said of the U.S. embrace of the awakening groups. "To the degree that the U.S. is trying to build a state _ which it says it is trying to do _ then these types of efforts are counterproductive."
Anthony Cordesman, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it is essential the Iraqi government utilize the awakening groups in capacities outside the military.
"You've got to move a lot of these young men back into the economy because not everybody under 25 in Iraq can be a policeman."
Cordesman said the Shiite government must find a way to include the Sunni fighters _ and the Sunni community at large _ in the political process. But it does not have to represent an immediate and sweeping forgiveness on both sides for the blood spilled since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
"Political accommodation is not reconciliation," he said. "It is whether the factions in Iraq can learn to live with each other."
Bradley Brooks covers political affairs in Iraq for The Associated Press.