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Arrest of Sunni leaders raises fears of broader clashes

McClatchy Washington Bureau
March 29, 2009
Leila Fadel
The arrest of two Sunni paramilitary leaders in Baghdad and the violent clashes that followed this weekend have cast a harsh light on a U.S. program on which Iraq's future stability may depend - the integration of U.S.-backed militias into Iraq's security forces and government ministries.
The latest violence, coupled with a pattern of arrests of Sunni leaders in other parts of Iraq, raises fears that the integration plan could collapse, and with it the understandings that led to drastically lower levels of violence throughout the country.
Tensions were high in Baghdad's Fadhil neighborhood Sunday, where at least 18 people were wounded in hours-long clashes on Saturday and Sunday morning. The Iraqi Army sealed off the district, and helicopters circled in the air, as Iraqi troops surrounded members of the Sons of Iraq and demanded they hand over their arms.
Paramilitary members surrendered by the afternoon and gave up their weapons. They also agreed to allow U.S. and Iraqi militaries to search homes for more arms. They had turned over 10 Iraqi soldiers they'd been holding late Saturday night, said Ali Abdel Razak, a deputy leader of the Sons of Iraq in Fadhil.
The government said it would not release Adel Mashhadani, the commander of the Sunni force in Fadhil, but Abdel Razak said tribal leaders from Anbar to Baghdad were involved in negotiations.
Ali al Dabbagh, the government spokesman, said Mashhadani had led a secret Baathist cell, referring to the party of the late dictator Saddam Hussein, and was creating an anti-government force.
"He killed and terrified the people, he was creating his own forces and leading a Baath party group," Dabbagh said. "We support the Sons of Iraq but we will not agree to these people who are killing."
The U.S. military said Sunday in a statement that Mashhadani - who was on the U.S. payroll for at least a year -- is suspected of criminal acts including extortion and killings.
Mashhadani was the second Sunni leader to be arrested in Baghdad in less than a week. On Tuesday Raad Ali, another top leader of a Sunni paramilitary, was detained in a midnight raid in the Ghazaliyah neighborhood. Thirteen Iraqi Humvees drove up to his home. Soldiers approached his door and pretended to seek his help, then forced him into an Iraqi army vehicle and whisked him off, his assistant, Atheer Mustafa, said.
"The Americans said that they would ignore the past -- even if someone had burned half of Iraq but it didn't happen. We have been betrayed," Atheer said. "We are between the two dangers -- the Iraqi Security Forces and Al Qaeda."
Unlike Mashhadani, an outspoken critic of the government who ruled his district as a personal fiefdom, Ali and his men seemed eager to join the Iraqi government and move from the margins to the mainstream of Iraqi society.
The two detentions are the latest in a series of arrests, killings, exiles or other actions against top leaders of the movement that the U.S. military sponsored, supported and in some cases recruited to help in the fight against Al Qaida in Iraq. Many of the men were former insurgents, once allied with the extremist Sunni group against the U.S. occupation, but later joined U.S. forces to secure their neighborhoods and oust their former ally.
At the height of the U.S. program, about 100,000 Sunni militia members were on the U.S. payroll. Now, with the U.S. military's planned departure and Iraqi demands to take control, nearly all, save 10,000, have been transferred to the control of the Shiite-led government. But the government has long resisted the idea of allying with former insurgents, granting them amnesty or absorbing them into the mainstream.
Just how many former "Sons of Iraq" members have been arrested is a matter of contention. But the anecdotal evidence suggests that the official figure of about 164 in the last year is an under-estimate.
In the once volatile neighborhood of Tahrir, in Baqouba, members of the Sons of Iraq stood guard Sunday and complained to a visiting reporter that they hadn't been paid in three months. It's a complaint heard also among Baghdad members
"They said we'd be in the police or army, and the opposite happened," complained Ahmed Farris Awad as he stood guard in the middle of the street in the city north of Baghdad. "They started detaining us. But we are still doing our duty."
Awad's brother is still in U.S. custody in Bucca where he's been held for about 14 months. He said his brother, Shawki Farris Awad, was the first to fight Al Qaida in Diyala - at the height of the violence, and at a time that Al Qaida was beheading people in the streets.
Most of the Sons of Iraq leaders fled the country in the lead-up to their transfer to Iraqi government control at the beginning of this year, while others were detained and two died, at least one at the hands of police, according to militia members in Tahrir.
Khalil Ibrahim, a militia member known by the name Abu Ali, carries a video on his cell phone showing his dead colleague Sheikh Bashir Ibrahim.
Sheikh Ibrahim was detained for a month late last year, severely beaten and then sent to the hospital where he died, Abu Ali said. The video depicts the bruised, purple body of his friend, with holes drilled in his foot and stomach and large scabs on his back from electric shocks. Police said he died of kidney failure.
"This is our fate," Abu Ali said. "America implemented an experiment with us, and when they saw the experiment succeeded they withdrew their support."
Mullah Shahab al Saafi, a top leader in the movement, has been in detention for more than three months. Lower-level members were detained in the months since, Ibrahim said. But after Bashir Khalil's death, the U.S. military has pressed the Iraqi police in Diyala not to torture its prisoners.
Abu Ali warned that if detentions continue, and the militia men give up their function of suppressing Al Qaida in Iraq, the extremists will be back in power on these streets.
"If we leave, the situation will return as it was," he said.
Inside Abu Ali's home, his friend and commander Sabah Bashir Hassan, Abu Talib, who'd hidden from the authorities for months, said he finally turned himself in. His wife thought she'd never see him again. But because of intense U.S. military pressure, he was treated well and the police disdainfully called him the Son of the Americans. Charges were dropped and they begrudgingly released him.
He said he is retiring from the Sons of Iraq because he no longer wants to be targeted. He plans to go into politics.
"The Prime Minister and all those who are with him, must understand truly we are the Sons of Iraq not the enemies," he said. "We were born here and they can't throw us into another land."
All three men who sat in Abu Ali's home Sunday with Abu Taliba said they were wanted by the Iraqi security forces.
At the Iraqi National Police headquarters in Baqouba, Col. Ragheb Radhi Abbas turned on his computer screen and played videos of beheadings and shooting conducted by Sunni insurgent groups in Diyala province.
"This is the Sahwas," he said, referring to the Sons of Iraq, using the Arabic word for "Awakening." "Now they've become a part of the state."
(Special Correspondents Laith Hammoudi and Hussein Kadhim contributed to this report.)
McClatchy Newspapers 2009
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