Sunni Group Says It's Being Harassed

The Sunni group, Sons of Iraq, has been vital in cutting down violence in Iraq. The organization was originally supported and paid for by the U.S. military. It has been negotiating its future with the Iraqi government. But the group's leaders say a campaign of harassment has begun against them.

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One of the neighborhood watch groups responsible for cutting down violence in Iraq is under pressure. The 100,000 members of the Sons of Iraq were originally supported and paid for by U.S. forces. Soon, they come under Iraqi government control. But the Sons of Iraq say the government in Diyala Province, northeast of Baghdad, is trying to force them to disband for political reasons. The government is led by Shiite Muslims, the Sons of Iraq or Sunnis. As NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports, many Sons of Iraq leaders had to flee the province for Syria.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: For months now, the Sons of Iraq in the rest of province of Diyala had been negotiating their future with Iraqi government. They've had meetings at the local and national level. The U.S. military, which funds and supports the Sons of Iraq, have interceded on their behalf. But despite government assurances, Sons of Iraq leaders from Diyala say a campaign of harassment against them has stepped up in recent weeks. Almost every leader there has had his house raided, they say. Dozens of rank and file members have been arrested on what they say are trumped up charges. Many others have gone into hiding. Abu Talib is the head of the Sons of Iraq in Diyala's capital city, Baquba.

Mr. ABU TALIB (Head, Sons of Iraq in Baquba, Diyala Province, Iraq): (Through Translator) I had a meeting with the prime minister's adviser and I told him the government keeps on promising to protect us and we find out that arrest warrants are being issued against us on fake charges. The adviser actually said to me hide yourself. So if the prime minister's adviser himself is asking me to hide, it's a very bleak picture indeed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: After that conversation two weeks ago, Abu Talib fled to Syria where NPR contacted him by phone. The Sons of Iraq movement began in 2007 when these former Sunni insurgents turned against Al-Qaida in Iraq. The U.S. military began funding and supporting them. Now, the Americans are trying to hand over control to the Iraqi government. Abu Talib says the Shiite-led government in Baghdad is trying to disband the Sons of Iraq by force for political reasons. Shiite parties control the local government in Diyala now, but provincial elections are coming up soon and Sunni groups are looking to be elected. NPR contacted another Sons of Iraq leader in Syria by phone. Malishi(ph) had fled there ten days ago after his house was raided by government forces and his father arrested. Up until now, the Sons of Iraq and the U.S. military have had a very close relationship. But he says he now feels that the U.S. military has betrayed them.

Mr. MALISHI (Leader, Sons of Iraq): (Through Translator) We wanted to provide security to our people in Diyala. But it seems that the government does not like it. And the American forces are the main reason behind this problem since the American forces gave us up.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Captain Solon Webb, with the 2nd Strike Cavalry Regiment, is the main U.S. military liaison with the Sons of Iraq in Baquba. NPR also spoke to him by phone. He believes that the Iraqi Army and police have been unfairly targeting the Sons of Iraq leadership.

Captain SOLON WEBB (Company Commander, 2nd Strike Cavalry Regiment): We've been looking into it. I have yet to see any solid evidence that points to any of my Sons of Iraq contractors having committed any crimes. There is a high-level paranoia that is definitely the case in town. ..TEXT: GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Americans are worried that alienating these former insurgents could drive them back into the arms of al-Qaeda in Iraq. But these Sunni paramilitaries say that the U.S. military is doing little to protect the force it helped create. And meanwhile, Abu Talib says security is getting worse in Diyala, known as a read out of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Mr. TALIB: (Through Translator) We are seeing that things are getting worse in the city. al-Qaeda is there and their selves are becoming more active in the province. And instead of fighting them, the security forces are trying to arrest us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Last week, 35 people were killed in a sophisticated ambush in a village in Diyala. Among them, 27 policemen in one of the deadliest attack on Iraq's security forces in recent months. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News Baghdad.

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