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Tension grows over program to combat militants in Iraq

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD -- Persistent violence in volatile Diyala province prompted security forces to impose a daylong ban on vehicles yesterday in the provincial capital, Baqouba, as frictions grew over a U.S.-backed program to recruit Sunnis to fight the militant group al-Qaida in Iraq.

Dozens of protesters took to the streets in two other Diyala towns, Muqdadiya and Buhruz, alleging that U.S. forces had detained at least two members of the local Awakening movement, the U.S.-financed citizen groups, local police officials said.

The protests underscore the U.S. military's tenuous position: Many of the volunteers are former Sunni insurgents who agreed to join forces with the Americans in exchange for $10 a day and the promise of a job.

Although the effort has been credited with a significant reduction in violence, Shiite leaders are suspicious of the effort, and some military officials have warned that the success of the program might be difficult to sustain.

Brig. Gen. Mohammed Abid Bresem, the police chief in Muqdadiya, said two Awakening members were among seven people stopped on the road to Baghdad. The U.S. military said it was not holding the men and was trying to determine what had happened to them.

Even so, protesters said they planned to demonstrate again today, and some volunteers have threatened to pull out of the Awakening Council.

"The other members and leaders of the Awakening have issued an ultimatum which is basically along the lines that if he's not released very soon, their initial reaction would be to cease from further operations targeting al-Qaida in Iraq, and maybe even withdraw from positions that they are currently holding," said Khalid Khalidi, a street commander for one of the local citizens groups, the Salahuddin Brigade.

"God knows what would happen if the people's demands are not met."

In Muqdadiya, an ethnically and religiously mixed town that was once a stronghold of al-Qaida in Iraq, residents credited the Awakening for security improvements there.

At a fabric store not far from a recent suicide bombing, owner Mohammed Hassen said yesterday, "Before, no one came out. All the shops were closed. But because of the Awakening and the Americans, security is good now."

In Baqouba, residents also praised the Awakening groups but expressed fear that the councils might be fracturing. The U.S. military has formed partnerships with criminals who once aided al-Qaida in Iraq, said Yousif Bilal of Baqouba.

"I think in the coming days, they might represent a threat," he said. "These are new militias under legal cover."

The Shiite-led government has expressed fears that when U.S. forces leave, the newly armed Sunnis will target Shiites.

A Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army, also has been credited with helping reduce the violence last year. In Baghdad's Shiite slum Sadr City yesterday, a leading cleric, Sheik Jassim Muttairi, praised the Mahdi Army for its commitment to a cease-fire that cleric Muqtada al-Sadr declared last year during the U.S. troop buildup.

And at a mosque in the southern city of Kufa, Sheik Abdul-hadi Muhammedawi, a leader in the al-Sadr movement, said: "We introduced security and the peace plan in the provinces, especially those who witnessed conflicts, with the participation of Sadr leaders. We believe this is the best way to solve our problems; it's also a good opportunity for all to reach security."

Kimi Yoshino writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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