- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 29, 2009

BAGHDAD (AP) - U.S.-backed Iraqi forces swept through a central Baghdad slum Sunday, disarming government-allied Sunni fighters who launched a two-day uprising to protest the arrest of their leader.

An official of the local Awakening Council in the Fadhil area said Iraqi forces had taken control of the neighborhood along with U.S. soldiers and were arresting fighters. He said resistance had ceased “for the sake of people of Fadhil.”

The confrontation in Fadhil, a ramshackle Sunni enclave on the east bank of the Tigris River where al-Qaida once held sway, is potentially explosive if it leads to a split between the Shiite-led government and the Awakening Councils.

The councils, also known as Sons of Iraq, are Sunni security volunteers who broke with al-Qaida and joined forces with the Americans to help guard their neighborhoods against extremists.

Shiite political leaders have never fully trusted the Awakening Councils since many of them are ex-insurgents. There have been fears that some of the fighters may return to the insurgency if they feel threatened by the Shiite-led government.

That could 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 the head of Fadhil’s Awakening Council for alleged terrorist activity and for purportedly leading an armed group loyal to Saddam Hussein’s ousted party.

The arrest triggered fierce gunfights between Iraqi forces and Awakening Council members, killing four people and wounding 15.

Six more people, including four women, were wounded Sunday in sporadic shooting that occurred as U.S. and Iraqi soldiers began sealing off the neighborhood, police and hospital officials said.

After Sunday’s gunbattles, Iraqi soldiers using loudspeakers ordered Awakening Council members in Fadhil to give up their weapons, while convoys of Iraqi and U.S. troops rolled in to secure the area, witnesses said.

Witnesses saw Iraqi troops, some accompanied by American soldiers, leading away groups of young men.

Awakening Council members, reached by telephone, said they would release five Iraqi soldiers captured in Saturday’s fighting.

The government sought to dampen speculation that the operation was directed at crushing the Awakening movement.

An Iraqi military spokesman told government television that operation in Fadhil was directed at “pursuing those involved in opening fire on our security forces” and not the general Sunni population.

Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said the Awakening Council leader who was arrested in Fadhil, Adil al-Mashhadani, was believed to have been involved in murder, extortion and other crimes as well as leading an armed wing of Saddam’s Baath party.

But suspicion between the government and the councils runs deep in Baghdad. Awakening Council leaders had complained of mistreatment by the government, including delays in receiving their salaries since they went off the U.S. payroll last year. The arrest of al-Mashhadani only served to reinforce their concerns.

“We hope the government will not arrest any member until it is proved he made mistakes,” said Sheik Mustafa Kamil Shebib, leader of the Awakening Council in south Baghdad’s Dora area.

Sheik Aifan Saadoun, a prominent Anbar province Awakening Council member, 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 councils in improving security.

Iraqi army officers were holding meetings with Awakening Council leaders in other parts of the city, apparently seeking to offer assurances that the arrest in Fadhil was not part of a move against them.

The Iraqi government assumed responsibility for paying the more than 90,000 security volunteers in October, and will take on the remaining 10,000 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 will wait until the end of April, and if the government does not pay us our salaries, then we will abandon our work,” said Ahmed Suleiman al-Jubouri, a leader of a group that mans checkpoints in south Baghdad.

Buckner said the new budget law shifted funding for the volunteers to the Interior Ministry, which was still refining its procedures and 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.

Ahmed Abu Risha, head of the Awakening Councils in Anbar province, said the government should speed up integrating volunteers into the army and police “to avoid what happened today” in Fadhil.

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.

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