Analysis: Weekend uprising shows Iraqi tensions

Tuesday, March 31, 2009
By ROBERT H. REID, Associated Press Writer

BAGHDAD —  The recent uprising by Sunni paramilitaries here is a sign of growing tension between the former insurgents and the Shiite-led government that runs Iraq _ a distrust that could blow up again as the United States draws down its military forces.

The fierce weekend gun battles also dramatize the fact that Iraq, despite its new calm, still hasn't achieved true reconciliation among its religious and ethnic groups.

As bullets pinged off concrete walls and snipers aimed from rooftops, the city held its breath to see if the outbreak of street fighting in the poor neighborhood of Fadhil would spread, or turn into a problem that grows worse as U.S. soldiers pull back.

"We were well respected when we worked with the Americans," lamented Khaled Khodeir al-Luhaibi, a leader of another Sunni group outside the capital. "When the Americans leave, we will be caught between the Iraqi government that is pursuing us and al-Qaida, which wants to take revenge on us."

At the heart of the issue is whether Iraqis can put aside the bitterness of Saddam Hussein's legacy. That bitterness was sharpened by Shiite-Sunni bloodletting the last few years, after the U.S.-led invasion toppled his regime in 2003.

The distrust clearly lingers.

The uprising began Saturday when police arrested the leader of a neighborhood Awakening Council, one of the paramilitaries formed when many Sunnis abandoned the insurgency and joined forces with the U.S. and Iraqi military.

Government spokesmen said the local leader was involved in murder, extortion, robbery and other crimes. They also alleged he was organizing an armed force loyal to Saddam's disbanded party, which was dominated by Sunnis.

The U.S., which encouraged the rise of the Awakening movement in the fight against al-Qaida, endorsed the government move against the leader.

Military spokesman Maj. Gen. David Perkins said the arrested leader was allegedly mixed up in "an extensive amount of criminal activity" and was "abusing his position as a leader" in Fadhil, a crime-ridden, slum neighborhood that was run by insurgents for years.

But the move into Fadhil also carried big risks _ chief among them that Sunnis would view the action not as a legitimate move against a criminal, but a politically motivated Shiite push against Sunnis.

It came after arrests of other Awakening Council figures in Baghdad and nearby Diyala province. Some council leaders said pressure against them has increased since the U.S. transferred responsibility for managing and paying the councils to the Iraqi government last October.

With suspicions running deep, some council leaders questioned the government's motives _ including why the warrant was issued in December but only served now.

"If the government persists to go down this path, then there will be problems between us and the government," said al-Luhaibi, leader of the council in the Diyala provincial capital of Baqouba.

A showdown between the Shiite-led government and the councils has been brewing since the beginnings of the Sunni decision to side with the United States and turn against al-Qaida in 2006.

U.S. commanders encouraged the rise of the Awakening Councils, also known as Sons of Iraq, and believe they were instrumental in turning the side against Sunni insurgents. Paying them salaries keeps them from returning to the insurgency.

But the Shiite-led government never fully embraced the councils because their ranks included ex-insurgents. Many Shiite politicians consider the paramilitaries as little more than mercenaries who could turn their guns on Shiite civilians someday.

The government is especially concerned about councils in Baghdad, which ethnic cleansing has transformed into a largely Shiite city. It's also worried about Diyala, a mixed area near the capital with Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

"None can deny that a large number of Awakening Councils have fought al-Qaida and other terrorist groups and purged their areas," the government-owned newspaper Al-Sabah said Tuesday. "But that doesn't give them the right to turn into groups that act as they please or give their allegiance to their leader rather than the law."

Under U.S. pressure, the government agreed to bring 20,000 of the more than 90,000 paramilitaries into the police and army. The government would pay the rest a salary until they could be found civilian jobs.

U.S. commanders were willing to accept even volunteers whom they suspected had killed Americans or Iraqis _ because they were so eager to curb violence. But Iraqi Shiites _ steeped in a culture of vendetta killings _ have been less forgiving.

U.S. officials have encouraged the government to consider the Awakening Councils' contribution to security when weighing prosecutions against some members.

But U.S. influence is waning now that Washington has agreed to a complete troop withdrawal by 2011. The new U.S.-Iraq security agreement has given Iraqis more authority.

"We work very closely with the Iraqi government to make sure that the right signals are sent when it comes to reconciliation," U.S. spokesman Maj. Gen. David Perkins said. "Some things are done better than others so it is a continual challenge."


Robert H. Reid is the AP bureau chief in Baghdad and has covered Iraq since 2003.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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