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Clashes Follow Sunni Leader's Arrest In Iraq

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Clashes Follow Sunni Leader's Arrest In Iraq

Iraq

Clashes Follow Sunni Leader's Arrest In Iraq

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LIANE HANSEN, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Baghdad is tense today after clashes broke out between a U.S.-backed Sunni paramilitary group called the Sons of Iraq, and Iraqi and American soldiers. The fighting took place in Baghdad's Fadhil neighborhood after security forces arrested the leader of the Sunni neighborhood watch group. Three civilians have been killed in the fighting so far, and the Sunni-Arab fighters have taken five Iraqi soldiers hostage. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro joins us now from Baghdad. Lourdes, can you tell us what's going on right now?

LOURDES GARCIA: Liane, the Fadhil neighborhood is on lockdown. The area is completely cordoned off, surrounded by Iraqi and U.S. military vehicles. There are U.S. helicopters whirling overhead, and the streets are completely deserted. We are hearing that there have been more arrests today, following fierce clashes yesterday, when the U.S. and Iraqi forces went to arrest Adel al- Mashadani, the head of the local Awakening Council in Fadhil.

We just spoke to one of his deputies from the Sons of Iraq there. They say that they've now been forced off the streets and that Iraqi security forces are in control of the area. There is a tense standoff for the moment.

HANSEN: Tell us a little bit more about the Sons of Iraq.

GARCIA: The Sons of Iraq were former insurgents, in many cases, who turned against al-Qaida in Iraq and were enlisted as local security by U.S. forces in about 2007. The Americans have been handing over control of the 100,000-strong paramilitary force, but it's been a fraught process. The Shiite- led government has promised to incorporate 20 percent of the Sons of Iraq into the Iraqi security forces, but so far only five percent have been vetted and accepted.

Many of the Sons of Iraq leaders, especially in places like Dialah Province, have faced arrest and harassment, they claim. So, you know, a lot of them are very unhappy. They feel that they were vital in establishing security and now they're being abandoned. There is a deep mistrust between the Shiite-led government here and these former Sunni fighters.

The idea of handing over control of them from the U.S. to the Iraqi government was meant to be a sign of reconciliation of incorporating these former foes into the mainstream, into Iraq security forces. But the U.S. military has been caught in the middle trying to mediate the situation.

HANSEN: So how significant is this recent development?

GARCIA: Well, you know, the fear has always been that these Sunni fighters, who have been trained and armed by the U.S. military, could turn on the government again and fight them. That's what's happened in Fadhil, effectively. Now, this could be an isolated incident, but it shows, I think, how fragile the security situation here still is and how important it is to bring these fighters, these former fighters into the fold, so to speak.

There is a lot of hostility. Speaking to these men in Fadhil, they say that they feel betrayed by the U.S. military. They feel betrayed by the Iraqi government. And, of course, they're still armed.

HANSEN: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Baghdad. Lourdes, thank you very much.

GARCIA: You're welcome.

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