Arrest sparks clashes in Baghdad

PAY PROBLEMS:: Some Awakening Council leaders had complained about delays with pay and other problems even before the arrest of one of their Baghdad counterparts

AP AND AFP , BAGHDAD AND BASRA, IRAQ

Mon, Mar 30, 2009 - Page 7

US and Iraqi troops exchanged gunfire yesterday with Sunni militants in central Baghdad in a second day of clashes following the arrest of a local leader of Sunni security volunteers who had broken with al-Qaeda.

Four people were killed and 15 wounded on Saturday when fighting broke out after police arrested Adil al-Mashhadani, the head of an Awakening Council group in the Sunni neighborhood of Fadhil in the heart of the capital.

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

Fighting tapered off on Saturday evening. But a photographer and a local shopkeeper said clashes erupted again yesterday morning, with both US and Iraqi troops firing at Sunni gunmen.

There was no immediate report of casualties.

Awakening Councils are Sunni security volunteers who broke with al-Qaeda. They are now paid to supplement the army and police, helping guard their neighborhoods.

The rise of the Awakening Councils, which the US calls Sons of Iraq, is considered a key step in turning the tide against the Sunni insurgency.

But Shiite political leaders have never fully trusted the Awakening Councils, many of whom were 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. The arrest only served to reinforce their concern.

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 US military spokesman, Colonel 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 US payroll on April 1.

On Saturday, however, leaders of several Awakening Councils complained that the government has not paid them in months, with some threatening to quit the movement.

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.

Meanwhile, six people were killed and seven others wounded when a bomb targeting Iraqi oil installation guards exploded yesterday in the southern oil hub of Basra, police said.

The explosion in the southern Basra district of Hamdan killed five civilians and a security guard, police said. The wounded included four civilians and three security guards.

No further details of the blast were immediately available.

Basra is Iraq’s third-largest city and a key economic and oil hub, which is also beset with rivalries among Shiite factions.