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9 Sunni fighters die in suicide attack in Iraq

April 11, 2009 4:24:54 PM PDT
A suicide bomber detonated an explosives belt Saturday among U.S.-allied Sunni paramilitaries collecting their salaries at an army base, killing nine and wounding about 30, Iraqi officials said. The attack in the town of Jbala, about 35 miles (50 kilometers) south of Baghdad, follows a bloody week of bombings that killed more than 50 people in the capital. Five U.S. soldiers died Friday in a bombing in Mosul - the deadliest attack against American troops in more than a year.

Those attacks have raised concern about the capability of Iraqi forces to control security after U.S. soldiers withdraw from Baghdad and other Iraqi cities by June 30.

About 250 members of Sunni paramilitaries known as Awakening Councils or Sons of Iraq were mingling around the Jbala base about 11 a.m. when the bomber struck.

One of the wounded, Riad Hassan al-Janabi, said Iraqi soldiers refused to allow them to wait inside the compound behind protective blast walls. Instead, guards allowed only a few small groups inside at a time, leaving most of them unprotected.

"I couldn't see anything as dust covered the area," said al-Janabi, who was hurled to the ground by the blast and wounded by shrapnel. "There were only voices of people around us and the smell of gunpowder."

Police spokesman Maj. Muthana Khalid and Dr. Nahidh Mohammed al-Maamouri of the nearby Iskandariyah General Hospital gave the casualty figures.

Awakening Council members are mostly Sunnis who joined forces with the Americans to drive al-Qaida and other insurgent groups from their communities.

U.S. officials credit the councils with helping curb violence, which has fallen dramatically since the U.S. troop surge of 2007. They have been frequently targeted by Sunni insurgents.

Last October, the Iraqi government agreed to assume responsibility for paying the paramilitaries from the Americans. However, salaries were delayed for months because of bureaucratic red tape, and Iraqi authorities only resumed payments this week.

The Shiite-led government has never fully trusted the councils because their ranks include former insurgents. The pay delay served to heighten mistrust among the paramilitaries, who fear the government wants to disband them.

Tensions between the government and the councils boiled over last month when a local group in central Baghdad launched a two-day uprising after the arrest of their leader.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, said the arrest followed a six-month investigation that tied the commander to criminal activity and was not part of a crackdown on the Awakening movement.

A Shiite lawmaker said he was confident that Iraqi police and soldiers can maintain security despite recent attacks and that the country "will not face a grave security deterioration."

"Yet we must admit that there have been isolated security breaches and gaps and that the terrorists are making use of this fact," said Abbas al-Bayati, chairman of the parliament security committee. "We believe that some real work needs to be done to fill the gaps in security."

The U.S.-Iraq security agreement that took effect this year requires the U.S. to pull combat troops out of Baghdad and other cities by June 30.

President Barack Obama plans to withdraw combat troops from the country by September 2010 and bring home the last of the force by the end of 2011.

During an interview this week with The Times of London, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Raymond Odierno, said American forces may have to remain in Mosul and Baqouba, where Sunni insurgents still operate, after the June 30 deadline but the final decision is up to the Iraqis.

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Associated Press Writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report.

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