- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 11, 2009

BAGHDAD (AP) - A suicide bomber walked into a crowd of U.S.-allied Sunni paramilitaries in Iraq on Saturday and detonated his explosives belt, killing nine and wounding 30 others waiting in line for their salaries, Iraqi police said.

The 11 a.m. explosion took place outside the military headquarters in the town of Jbala, about 35 miles (50 kilometers) south of Baghdad, said police spokesman Maj. Muthana Khalid. The bomber walked into the group of about 250 Awakening Council members and blew himself up.

A recent spate of attacks, which this week killed at least 53 people in Baghdad alone, will likely raise concerns about the readiness of Iraqi forces to take over security of their country as the Obama administration prepares to remove all combat troops from Iraq by the end of August 2010.

The decision of tens of thousands of Sunni fighters to turn against the insurgency starting in 2006 has been key to reducing violence in Iraq, but the so-called Awakening Councils are constantly being targeted by militants.

The Iraqi government has been suspicious of the fighters, maintaining that some retain ties to the insurgency.

Salaries for the paramilitaries, which were once paid by the U.S. military, have been delayed by the Iraqi government for two months and there have been concerns among the paramilitaries that the Shiite-led authorities could disband them.

At the Jbala headquarters, the Awakening fighters had asked the soldiers to allow them to wait inside the compound behind the blast walls, said Riad Hassan al-Janabi, one of the wounded in Saturday’s explosion.

But the guards would only let small groups inside to get their salaries, he added, leaving most unprotected outside.

As al-Janabi left after being paid, he said there was a “big boom” and the blast threw him some yards away.

“I couldn’t see anything as dust covered the area. There were only voices of people around us and the smell of gunpowder,” he said.

Al-Janabi, who sustained shrapnel wounds in his right arm, and the other wounded were treated at the hospital in the nearby town of Iskandariyah, where Dr. Nahidh Mohammed al-Maamouri confirmed the casualty toll. The police said the bomber’s identity was not immediately known.

There are some 90,000 Awakening fighters and their tensions with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government came to a head last month in central Baghdad when the arrest of one of their leaders triggered a shootout with U.S.-backed Iraqi forces.

Al-Maliki later said the government crackdown _ which escalated into a two-day gunbattle _ was not politically motivated but followed a six-month investigation that tied the commander to crimes and subversion.

Saturday’s blast came a day after a horrific explosion believed to have been carried out by Sunni extremists. In that attack, a suicide truck driver detonated a ton of explosives near a police headquarters in the northern city of Mosul.

Five U.S. soldiers were killed in the blast, the deadliest attack against American troops in more than a year.

Besides the five Americans, two Iraqi policemen also died and at least 62 people, including one American soldier and 27 civilians, were wounded, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.

The U.S. military said the bomber was targeting the Iraqi police and that the Americans were bystanders. The attack is likely to increase pressure on Iraq’s prime minister to ask American combat troops to stay in Mosul after the June 30 deadline for them to pull out of Iraqi cities.

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