BAGHDAD – Iraq's Shiite-led government promised Monday to continue paying salaries of thousands of mostly Sunni fighters who have turned against Al Qaeda but said the U.S. figure on their numbers was too high.
The dispute over the number of awakening council members, also known as Sons of Iraq, could increase tension between Sunnis and Shiites at a time when the U.S. is pressing the Iraqis to take advantage of the drop in violence to forge power-sharing agreements for a lasting peace.
Emergence of those groups, which include former insurgents and ex-Saddam Hussein loyalists, was a key reason behind the decline in violence, especially in areas where Al Qaeda and other Sunni militants once ruled.
But the Shiite-led government remains suspicious of the awakening councils, believing they are little more than armed Sunni militias that could turn their guns on the Shiites some day.
The U.S. military has been managing and paying the volunteers to help provide security in neighborhoods, towns and villages but plans to transfer that responsibility to the Iraqi government starting next month.
In an order issued Monday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pledged to integrate about 20 percent of the volunteers into the army or police and find government jobs for the rest as vacancies appear.
"We will keep paying the salaries until jobs are offered," al-Maliki's order said.
Despite that pledge, the government has questioned U.S. figures on the number of Awakening Council members.
The U.S. military believes the figure is about 99,000 based on a head count this year. The U.S. gathered iris scans and other information on each volunteer fighter to make sure the list was accurate, U.S. military officials say.
"We think the publicly announced figure is incorrect and there are bogus lists of members who get salaries from the Americans," chief government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Al-Arabiya television late Sunday.
He said the government believed the real figure was no more than 50,000 — or about half the American count. He also suggested some members may be purged.
"We need to separate the bad elements inside the awakening councils," al-Dabbagh added. "There are groups that work in the name of awakening councils but they attack other council members."
One prominent awakening council leader insisted that the Americans had been methodical in tallying the number of Sunni volunteers.
"I think al-Dabbagh's claim is untrue and baseless," Sheik Qais Dhiyab Ahmed, head of the awakening council in Balad, told The Associated Press. "We don't accept the notion of some Iraqi lawmakers that we are militias. Members of the awakening councils are fighting Al Qaedaand we have many martyrs."
Nevertheless, suspicion of the councils runs deep among Shiite politicians, many of whom fled the country for Iran and Syria during Saddam's crackdowns against the majority religious community.
The mostly Shiite security services have also been arresting some council figures in Diyala province, Baghdad and elsewhere, accusing them of various crimes and working with the insurgents.
Last week, Ahmed Abu Risha, head of the awakening council in Anbar province where the revolt against Al Qaeda began, appealed to the government to acknowledge the role of Sunnis who turned against the terror movement and stop complaining about their past links to Saddam's regime.
Despite the Sunni revolt, Al Qaeda and some other Sunni insurgents remain active, especially in Mosul and other northern cities.
On Monday, a suicide driver detonated his explosive-laden car near a police patrol in downtown Mosul, killing one Iraqi policeman and wounding four others, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.
A parked car bomb exploded Monday in another northern city, Beiji, killing two policemen and wounding four others, provincial police said. Two Iraqi soldiers were killed and four others were wounded Monday in a roadside bombing near the flashpoint town of Buhriz in Diyala province, the local joint operations center said in a statement.
In Baghdad, a series of small bombs exploded during the morning rush hour in different parts of the city, killing one person and wounding 14 others, police reported.