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Iraqi Shiite leader affirms Sunni militia strategy

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD -- The leader of Iraq's most influential Shiite party offered surprisingly conciliatory remarks yesterday about the former insurgents and other Sunni Arabs who have banded together into militias to work with U.S. forces, stating that the groups had helped improve security and should be continued.

In a speech in Najaf, the Shiite holy city, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the party that has long been the backbone of the main Shiite political alliance, said a major reason for recent security improvements was not merely a dependence on official security forces but also a reliance on tribal groups and local councils.

"We still believe in continuing this strategy," said al-Hakim, the leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

In another development yesterday, two American soldiers were killed and a third soldier was wounded in Diyala province, the U.S. military said. Another soldier was killed Wednesday by an improvised bomb south of Baghdad, the first death of an American soldier this year.

Al-Hakim's remarks yesterday referred to Sunni groups, known as Awakening Councils, which emerged in 2006 in Sunni-dominated western Iraq, and spread to mixed Sunni-Shiite areas around Baghdad last year.

The American-backed groups, with nearly 80,000 members, are credited with routing al-Qaida in Mesopotamia and other extremist militants from many areas and helping to slash the American death toll. Many militia members used to attack American troops, before deciding to join forces with them.

While the rise of these groups has been the most promising development for the U.S. military, the partnership has drawn deep skepticism from the Shiite-dominated central government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The Shiites fear the Americans have created an armed parallel force that one day could turn against the official Iraqi security forces, which are dominated by Shiites and Kurds. Last month, the government declared that it would eventually disband the groups, though it has said it would integrate some members into the official security forces.

While al-Hakim did not say whether the groups should be continued indefinitely, his speech appeared to soften more cautious comments he made just last month, when he warned that the Sunni groups should operate only in the most dangerous areas and should not be seen as a replacement for government forces.

Another top official in al-Hakim's party, Jalal al-Din al-Sagheer, said yesterday in an interview that the party still wants tight controls on the Sunni militias.

"We support the Awakening project, but on the condition that it should not be penetrated by al- Qaida and that it should not represent just one sect, rather than representing all Iraqis," he said.

Increasingly, the Awakening Councils are caught between Shiite reluctance to embrace and support them and heightened attacks from extremist Sunni militants. Yesterday, three Awakening Council fighters guarding a checkpoint in Hawija, a volatile town north of Baghdad, were wounded in a drive-by shooting, said Capt. Mahmoud Abdullah of the Iraqi police.

Violence throughout Baghdad and Diyala province yesterday underscored how tenuous the security situation remains. In Baghdad, at least three civilians were killed and seven others wounded by mortar shells. In Diyala, improvised bombs killed two policemen near Khalis and one near Zaganiyah, an Iraqi police official said.

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