Gunfight erupts as Iraqi Sunni leader arrested

March 28, 2009 2:22:57 PM PDT
A gunfight erupted Saturday in central Baghdad after the local leader of a Sunni group that broke with al-Qaida was arrested for his alleged role in terrorist acts, Iraqi officials said. Adil al-Mashhadani, the head of an Awakening Council group, was detained Saturday along with an aide after a warrant was issued for his arrest, Iraqi military spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said.

The shooting started after Iraqi army and police units served the warrant in Fadhil, a Sunni enclave on the east bank of the Tigris River that was run by al-Qaida until U.S. and Iraqi soldiers regained control in 2007.

Four people - three civilians and a policeman were killed - and 10 people were wounded in the shooting, according to police and hospital officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to release information to media.

How the Shiite-led government deals with the Sunni security volunteers, known variously as Awakening Councils or Sons of Iraq, is widely seen as a test of its ability to win the loyalty of disaffected Sunnis - an essential step in forging a lasting peace in Iraq.

It was unclear whether the allegations against al-Mashhadani were based on his purported activities before the Sunni revolt against al-Qaida, during which thousands of Sunnis switched sides.

A U.S. military spokesman, Col. Bill Buckner, confirmed the arrest and said the move was not directed at the Awakening Council.

Fadhil resident Hazim Hussein said about a dozen vehicles loaded with police special commandos entered the neighborhood about 2:30 p.m. and headed toward al-Mashhadani's home.

About a half hour later, as word of the arrest spread through the neighborhood, heavy gunfire broke out, sending residents fleeing the streets, Hussein said. Police reinforcements rushed to the area and shooting tapered off after about two hours, he said.

"I hurried home to my family, closed the doors. I could hear the sounds of shooting mixed with people shouting. I couldn't hear what they were saying because of sirens from ambulances and police," Hussein said.

By nightfall the area was quiet except for the sound of U.S. helicopters patrolling overhead, another resident said on condition of anonymity because he feared for his safety.

The rise of the Awakening Councils is widely seen as a major contribution to the sharp reduction in violence following the U.S. troop surge of 2007.

Volunteer fighters, many of them ex-insurgents, man checkpoints, provide intelligence to Iraqi and U.S. forces and take part in joint security patrols.

But many Shiite politicians view the councils with deep suspicion, believing they switched sides for money and could turn their weapons against the majority Shiite community again someday.

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 a 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."

Similar complaints were also raised by Sons of Iraq groups in Azamiyah, a former al-Qaida stronghold in north Baghdad, and in Diyala province near the capital.

"The fighters in Diyala haven't been getting paid since three months ago," said Khalid Khudhair al-Lehaibi, leader of the volunteers in the province. "We appeal the government to pay our salaries, and if they won't, we will organize demonstrations and sit-ins in the province."

Efforts to contact a government spokesman were unsuccessful because offices are closed on weekends.

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 Saturday, a senior aide to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki confirmed that contacts were under way to win the release of five Britons taken hostage in May 2007 but denied Arab media reports that deal had been finalized.

The widely read Saudi-owned news Web site Elaph quoted a leader of the Shiite extremist group Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, as saying one of the five Britons would be freed "very soon" in exchange for 10 of its members.

If that exchange goes according to plan, the other hostages would be released in stages in exchange for the freedom of more detained Shiites. The first group of detainees would include Laith al-Khazali, brother of the league's founder, Qais al-Khazali, Elaph said.

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