By Mike Lanchin and Mona Mahmoud
BBC News, Baghdad
Last year, the Iraqi government warned of the dangers of giving too much power to the mainly Sunni Awakening Councils, armed neighbourhood groups that have successfully driven al-Qaeda out of many districts of Baghdad and elsewhere.
Concerned Local Citizens man security barriers and check vehicles
Now, with their numbers having risen to around 80,000 nationwide, the Shia-led administration in Baghdad says it is in the process of recruiting Awakening Council members into the police and army.
"We should not miss this golden opportunity afforded by the Sunni Arab community having turned against al-Qaeda and coming back into the fold," Iraq's Security Advisor, Dr Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, told the BBC.
"We are at the beginning of the [recruitment] process, but we need to be very careful not to allow them to join without proper vetting."
He said that government intelligence reports showed al-Qaeda was trying to infiltrate the neighbourhood groups.
"Once we get al-Qaeda in our security services, then we are doomed," he warned.
A spokesman for the US military said that around 9,000 Awakening Council members were being processed to join the security forces and that more were awaiting screening and places in the police and military academies.
Formed in late 2006 following Sunni tribal rebellions against al-Qaeda in the restive al-Anbar province, Awakening Councils, also known as Concerned Local Citizens (CLC) have been set up in and around Baghdad at the behest of the Americans.
The US pays members $300 (£150) a month to be its eyes and ears, manning security barriers, checking vehicles and providing vital intelligence for the coalition forces.
"We attracted young men who would have joined the resistance, or were unemployed," said Abu Abdullah, a leader of the Awakening Councils in western Baghdad.
He said a US brigadier had told him to "let anyone who wanted to join, join."
Ali, a 27-year-old engineering graduate and member of an Awakening Council in western Baghdad, told the BBC: "It's a source of income. Also, before, we weren't able to move between neighbourhoods because of the (Shia) Mehdi army."
The US military wants to continue to invest in the Awakening Councils
"We formed our group in co-ordination with the Americans, and things got much better," he added.
Following instructions from the Americans, Ali said that he and other Awakening members had filled in the forms to become police officers.
But he complained that delays in the recruitment process were putting him off. "I think the government is trying to hinder us," he said.
Mistrust is widespread. After all, many Sunnis felt excluded the last time the security forces were re-established after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
"There are pressures on the Americans from the Iraqi government to reduce the number of people in the councils, so that they won't turn into Sunni militias, and to keep the upper hand of the Shia in the security forces," Abu Abdullah said.
Abu Mohammed, another Awakening Council leader from south-eastern Baghdad, said his members welcomed the chance to become "permanent" members of the police or army.
Demand to join the Iraqi police force has been high
But he said they objected to the government's proposal to allow only 20% of members to apply.
"These people took the decision to face and fight al-Qaeda and the militias - you must given them something equal to this dangerous work, and not just tell them to go home," he said.
According to the Ministry of Interior, more than 100 Awakening Council members have been killed by al-Qaeda or militias since early December - among them six leaders.
According to Dr Muthana al-Dari of the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars, disputes were occurring between what he said were rival Awakening Councils formed by rival Sunni political parties.
The Association of Muslim Scholars has consistently rejected any form of co-operation with the coalition forces.
Dr Dari said the Awakening Councils were "designed to serve the project of the occupation" and were now "in their last 15 minutes".
The US military has said it will continue to invest heavily in the Awakening Councils, which it has credited with helping reduce sectarian tensions and violence in many mainly Sunni areas.
Brigadier General Mark MacDonald, who oversees the US forces co-operation with the Awakening Councils, said the Americans were not going "pull the rug from under them", and was keen to see a smooth transition of Awakening Council members into the security forces.
He said people were being hired into the police "faster than they can be trained".
However, while he denied there was any bad faith on the part of the Shia-led government, Gen MacDonald warned that delays in the recruitment process could cause some members of the neighbourhood groups to turn against the authorities.