BAGHDAD – The Shiite-led government is cracking down on U.S.-backed Sunni Arab fighters in one of Iraq’s most turbulent regions, arresting some leaders, disarming dozens of men and banning them from manning checkpoints except alongside official security forces.
The moves in Diyala province reflect mixed views on a movement that began in 2007 among Sunni tribes in western Iraq who revolted against al-Qaida in Iraq and joined the Americans in the fight against the terrorist network.
U.S. officials credit the rise of such groups, known variously as Awakening Councils, Sons of Iraq and Popular Committees, with helping rout al-Qaida.
But Iraq’s government is suspicious of such groups, fearing their decision to break with the insurgency was a short-term tactic to gain U.S. money and support. The government fears they will eventually turn their guns against Iraq’s majority Shiites.
The effort in Diyala, northeast of Baghdad, began last month as U.S. and Iraqi forces launched an operation against al-Qaida and other extremists in that region.
Mullah Shihab al-Safi, commander of Sunni fighters in Diyala, told the Associated Press that many senior leaders of his group had been detained and fighters evicted from their offices. He gave no figures.
Another senior commander said security forces evicted his men from all but seven of some 100 offices in Diyala. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared arrest.
The U.S. military confirmed the Diyala actions but gave few details. Fighters were only pushed out of buildings they did not own, a military spokesman, Capt. Matt Rodano, said.
Although there has been no general crackdown on Sunni volunteers elsewhere, some leaders outside Diyala have been arrested in western Baghdad and south of the capital – both one-time al-Qaida strongholds.
Government officials would not comment on specific claims about the push in Diyala. But aides close to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, said the government was not willing to tolerate the existence of armed groups with “blood on their hands.”
“The continuation of the Awakening Councils as they are now is unacceptable,” said Ali al-Adeeb, a close al-Maliki aide and a senior member of his Dawa Party.
A top Iraqi security official with access to classified information said authorities were especially suspicious of the Diyala groups because many of their estimated 14,000 fighters had been members of al-Qaida in Iraq.
But acting against the Sunni movements could alienate the once-dominant minority Sunni Arabs at a time when overtures to them appear to be making headway.
“We fought the Americans for four years and we fought al-Qaida, too,” said al-Safi, a former Iraqi army commando during Saddam Hussein’s regime who fought in the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war. “We are an experienced armed group. We are fully capable of bringing the house down.”
Since the rise of the allied Sunni movement, America has spent some $200 million on salaries, equipment and training for the fighters, which now number nearly 100,000. The U.S. goal is for many of them to be integrated into the Iraqi army or police, providing the fighters with long-term incomes.
The Americans believe the program has paid dividends not only in security but in reviving the economy in former insurgent hotbeds.
“It has put money in the local economy and reduced attacks on coalition forces,” said Lt. Col. Michael Getchell, commander of U.S. troops in Iskandariyah. “You can see where the money is going – an irrigation pump here, a renovated home there.”
But the Iraqi government has stonewalled U.S. efforts to get most of the Sunni fighters into the Shiite-dominated security forces.
It has repeatedly changed requirements for enrollment in the police and army, canceling and changing application forms without warning or insisting that training camps were full.
The U.S. military says that of the 99,859 Awakening Council members it recognizes, only 23,357 have been accepted into the security forces or given civilian jobs.
U.S. officers worry that disbanding the Sunni groups without providing alternate incomes could push the fighters back into the insurgency.
One Shiite official who is close to al-Maliki said the prime minister believes his successful crackdown this year on Shiite militias has given him enough authority to go after Sunni armed groups without alienating Sunni politicians.