Troops Exchange Fire With Sunni Militants in Baghdad

U.S. and Iraqi troops exchanged gunfire Sunday 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 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 Saturday evening. But an Associated Press photographer and a local shopkeeper said clashes erupted again Sunday morning, with both U.S. and Iraqi troops firing at Sunni gunmen.

There was no immediate report of casualties.

Awakening Councils, or Sons of Iraq, 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 Americans call 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.

Al-Mashhadani was arrested along with an aide for alleged terrorist activity, Iraqi military spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said without elaborating. He said the troops had a warrant issued by an Iraqi judge.

About a half hour after the Saturday arrest, heavy gunfire broke out, sending residents fleeing the streets, witnesses said. The shootout tapered off about two hours later.

The dead included three civilians and a policeman, according to police and hospital officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to release information to media.

A Fadhil resident reached by telephone said Iraqi troops were searching house to house and that many people were fleeing the neighborhood to escape the fighting. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears for his own safety.

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.

"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.

On Saturday, however, 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.