- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 29, 2009

BAGHDAD (AP) - Iraqi troops using loudspeakers ordered Sunni security volunteers in a Baghdad neighborhood to turn in their weapons after the arrest of their leader sparked fierce gunbattles between the former U.S. allies and American and Iraqi troops.

The confrontation in Fadhil, a ramshackle Sunni enclave on the east bank of the Tigris River where al-Qaida once held sway, threatens to undermine U.S. efforts to stabilize Baghdad before American troops pull out of Iraqi cities by the end of June.

Trouble started Saturday when Iraqi troops arrested Adil al-Mashhadani, head of the Awakening Council in Fadhil, for alleged terrorist activity. The arrest triggered fierce exchanges of gunfire Saturday, killing four people and wounding 15.

Awakening Councils, also known as Sons of Iraq, are Sunni security volunteers who broke with al-Qaida and joined forces with the Americans. The councils help man checkpoints and guard neighborhoods and have played a major role in turning the tide against the Sunni insurgency.

Sporadic shooting occurred Sunday in Fadhil, as U.S. and Iraqi soldiers sealed off the area. Families could be seen fleeing the neighborhood, carrying small plastic bags with clothing.

Iraqi soldiers using loudspeakers ordered Awakening Council members to give up their weapons. Iraqi troops also planned house-to-house searches to secure the area, police said.

Convoys of Iraqi and U.S. troops rolled into the neighborhood at midday, according to witnesses.

Five Iraqi soldiers were missing after the Saturday fighting and were presumed captured by Awakening Council fighters, a police officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to release the information.

Despite the volunteers’ role in helping reduce violence, Shiite political leaders have never fully trusted the Awakening Councils since many of them are ex-insurgents.

Some Awakening Council leaders expressed fear that al-Mashhadani’s arrest could signal a crackdown on them by the Shiite-led government _ a move that could send many volunteers back to the ranks of the insurgents.

Even before the arrest, Awakening Council leaders had complained of mistreatment by the government, including delays in receiving their pay since they went off the U.S. payroll last year. The arrest only served to reinforce their concern.

“All of us are in danger and I prefer to keep silent,” said Sheik Mustafa Kamil Shebib, leader of the Awakening Council in south Baghdad’s Dora area. “We hope the government will not arrest any member until it is proved he made mistakes.”

Sheik Aifan Saadoun, a prominent Awakening Council member in Anbar province, said no one wants criminals in the ranks but “we fear that this situation will turn into a `settling of scores’ by some political parties and we might be the victims.”

A U.S. military spokesman, Col. Bill Buckner, insisted the arrest did not herald a crackdown and said the government appreciated the contribution of the Awakening Councils in improving security.

Last October, the Iraqi government assumed responsibility for paying the more than 90,000 security volunteers. The Iraqi government is to start paying the last 10,000 volunteers still on the U.S. payroll on April 1.

Leaders of several Awakening Council groups complained that the government has not paid them in months, with some threatening to quit the movement.

“We have not received our salaries in two months,” said Ahmed Suleiman al-Jubouri, a leader of a group that mans checkpoints in south Baghdad. “We will wait until the end of April, and if the government does not pay us our salaries, then we will abandon our work.”

Buckner said the new budget law shifted funding for the volunteers to the Interior Ministry, which was still refining its procedures. He said payments would resume this week.

Under pressure from the U.S., the government agreed to accept 20,000 of the fighters into the police or army and continue paying the rest until they could find them civilian jobs.

But U.S. officials say the process has been slowed because the drop in world oil prices has cut deeply into the government’s revenues, prompting a freeze on army and police recruiting.

Also Sunday, a roadside bomb exploded near a security patrol in the southern city of Basra, killing one security guard and three civilians, police said. Nine other people were wounded in the blast, which occurred in Basra’s Hamdan industrial area, police said.

Eight Iraqi policemen also were wounded when a roadside bomb struck their patrol in the northern oil city of Kirkuk, police Brig. Gen. Burhan Tayeb Taha said.

In Baghdad, another policeman was wounded Sunday morning by a roadside bomb in the Amiriyah area, another police officer said. He spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to release information.

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