Iraqi Sunnis Wary After Paramilitary Leader's Arrest

Tensions are high in Baghdad after fierce weekend clashes in which several people were killed and wounded; U.S.-backed Sunni paramilitaries fought with Iraqi and American forces in the Baghdad neighborhood of Fadhil.

The battle erupted when U.S. and Iraqi forces arrested one of the neighborhood paramilitary leaders.

Now, Fadhil is on lockdown. Dozens of tanks and Humvees, and hundreds of Iraqi troops backed by U.S. forces, control the area. They are conducting house-to-house searches looking for weapons and wanted men.

Until this weekend, the U.S.-backed Sunni paramilitaries known as the Sons of Iraq kept security in Fadhil.

But when Iraqi and U.S. forces arrested their leader, Adil al-Mashadani, his men fought back. The clashes left more than a dozen people dead and injured.

Iraq's government says Mashadani headed a secret cell loyal to Saddam Hussein's Baath party. The U.S. military says he was involved in extortion and racketeering.

But on the streets of Fadhil, several residents say they felt there were sectarian motives for the crackdown.

An older Fadhil resident angrily denounced the raid, shouting repeatedly, "This is a war against the Sunni areas."

Iraqi army officers quickly arrested him, abruptly accusing him of planting roadside bombs.

Nearby, another woman cries out that the army arrested her son for no reason. Dozens of other residents line the street, silently watching the security operation.

Sunnis across Iraq have been closely following events in Fadhil.

Despite assurances by the Iraqi government that the Fadhil raid does not signal a wider crackdown against the Sons of Iraq forces, there is a rising concern among Sunni leaders about the Shiite-led government's intentions.

Mohamed Abdul al-Kohla is the Sons of Iraq leader in the Baghdad neighborhood of Amiriyah.

"This is something very dangerous. We especially don't like that they disarmed our brothers in Fadhil. How are they supposed to protect themselves now?" he asks. "This will open the way for the terrorists to attack them again. I think this is wrong."

The Sons of Iraq are made up of former insurgents who allied themselves with the U.S. military to fight al-Qaida in Iraq. The Americans, who trained and paid them, recently handed over control of the Sunni neighborhood fighters to the Iraqi government.

But the transition has not been smooth, and there is deep mistrust on both sides.

Iraq's government promised to keep paying the men until they can find them jobs in Iraq's security forces or ministries. So far, only 5 percent of the Sunni paramilitary forces have been incorporated into the police and army. And many of the paramilitaries say they have not been paid in months.

Mustafa Kamel, the Sons of Iraq leader in the Baghdad neighborhood of Dora, says the government has not kept its word.

"Honestly, we're worried about the future. If the government doesn't pay us and incorporate us into the security services, I swear, bad things will start happening here a month from now," he says. "We won't attack them, but the situation will deteriorate again."

The fear is that these former fighters could return to the insurgency and plunge the country into a renewed cycle of violence. That could imperil the timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops

U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Mike Milano is in charge of training the Iraqi police. He says the Sons of Iraq need to have their expectations met.

"They're a critical component of the current security situation, and so I think it's vital that the government fulfills its obligations to them, absolutely," he says.

Kamel, the Dora leader, says the U.S. military needs to give them more than words.

"If anything happens to our members, it will be the responsibility of the U.S. government. The Americans completely abandoned us," he says.

The Americans, he adds bitterly, have broken all of their promises.

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