Wednesday, April 1, 2009

BAGHDAD (AP) - At least 25 percent of the Sunni paramilitaries who staged an uprising last weekend in central Baghdad after their leader was arrested escaped with their weapons, two Iraqi security officers said Wednesday.

The rest of the estimated 250 members of the Awakening Council in the Fadhil area surrendered their guns to Iraqi forces after the two-day uprising, according to the two officers, one from the army and the other from the police.

The police officer estimated “up to 30 percent” of the fighters were missing, while the army officer put the figure at 25 percent. The difference is based on confusion over the precise number of paramilitaries who took part in the uprising.

Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t supposed to give information to media.

Awakening Councils, which the U.S. military calls Sons of Iraq, are made up of Sunnis who turned against the insurgents and now help Iraqi security forces provide security in their neighborhoods.

Since the uprising ended Sunday, all checkpoints in Fadhil are being manned by Iraqi soldiers and police, according to residents.

The U.S. military engineered the rise of the Awakening movement and believe the paramilitaries played a major role in turning the tide in the fight against Sunni insurgents.

But the Shiite-led government is suspicious of many Awakening groups, which include former insurgents in their ranks.

A number of Awakening Council leaders elsewhere fear the crackdown in Fadhil is part of a government move to sideline them. They point to a string of arrests and assassinations of Awakening Council members over the last six months.

The police spokesman in Babil province south of Baghdad, Maj. Muthanna Khalid, said 12 Awakening members had been slain in the province since the beginning of the year. He said most were victims of tribal disputes, but he didn’t elaborate.

Mustafa Kamil al-Jubouri, head of the paramilitary group in the tense Dora area of south Baghdad, said his fighters will continue working with the government but called for an independent commission to supervise investigations and arrests of Awakening members.

“We had asked the central government from the beginning to verify documents of Awakening members to clear the organization of infiltrators and bad elements who try to defame the reputation of those who played a positive role and accomplished victories against al-Qaida.” al-Jubouri said. “But we reject the way the case in Fadhil was handled.”

But in the Jurf al-Sakhar area south of Baghdad, Awakening Council members abandoned 13 of the 21 checkpoints they operated in the district to protest alleged government hostility to them, police said.

The area had been a major al-Qaida staging area until the rise of the Awakenings.

Government officials insist they support the Awakening movement but will not tolerate criminals in the ranks.

Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, said he believed the government was committed to supporting the paramilitaries but added there were bound to be some problems in such a large force, which numbers more than 90,000.

The U.S. military began transferring control of the Awakening Council members to the Iraqi government last October. The government promised to bring 20 percent of them into the police or army and pay the rest until they could be found civilian jobs.

But salaries for many Awakenings have been delayed for months. The U.S. insists the delay was caused by bureaucratic red tape and will be resolved soon.

Recruiting Awakening members into the police and army has also stalled because of a hiring freeze due to a sharp drop in government revenues now that oil prices have plummeted from last summer’s high.

Also Wednesday, the U.S. military announced that a U.S. soldier assigned to Multinational Division-North died the day before in a “noncombat-related incident” in Salahuddin province north of Baghdad. No further details were released.

In Mosul, where Sunni insurgents remain active, police said 10 people were wounded Wednesday when a car bomb exploded in a commercial area in the center of the northern city.

Four civilians were wounded when a bomb exploded Wednesday evening in another part of Mosul, police said.

Elsewhere, eight people were wounded when a bomb went off Wednesday in the Shorjah area of Kirkuk, police chief Brig. Gen. Burhan Tayeb said. Kirkuk is a northern oil city where Arabs, Turkomen and Kurds are competing for power.

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