Volunteer patrols raise Shiite apprehension

Council leader wants them run by the government

December 22, 2007|By New York Times News Service.

BAGHDAD -- The leader of Iraq's largest Shiite political party said yesterday that the neighborhood patrols credited with calming many Sunni areas must submit to government authority and include a broader sectarian mix.

The comments by the political leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, reflected growing resistance among many Shiites to the neighborhood groups, also known as Awakening Councils, which are almost exclusively Sunni and have American support. Their ranks have grown this year to 65,000 to 80,000 members, with a large portion in Baghdad.

Hakim said they should be limited to Iraq's worst areas and should only act as auxiliaries to Iraqi government security forces.

"We appreciate the role of the armed forces, the Awakening Councils, tribes and popular committees in tracking down terrorism and criminals," he said, in a speech at his Baghdad office, where thousands had gathered for Id al-Adha, marking the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. "But at the same time we emphasize that these Awakenings must be an arm of the Iraqi government and not a substitute for it."

In mixed areas, the groups should include a proportionate number of members from each sect, Hakim said. And, he added, the councils' role should be temporary.

"Weapons should only be in the hands of the government," he said.

Hakim's views are common and becoming more pronounced among Shiite leaders in Iraq's government, who worry that the Awakening movement has been infiltrated by insurgents, and could stir up Shiite militias who see them as a threat.

What began two years ago with an alliance between the Americans and tribes in Anbar province, an almost exclusively Sunni area, has since become a sprawling national juggernaut.

The Americans expect to hire as many as 100,000 volunteers, not including the 23,000 Awakening members in Anbar province who have been hired onto the local police force.

The growth has been fueled by success -- Anbar has gone from one of Iraq's most dangerous areas to one of its safest -- and by money. Most of the groups' members are paid an average of $300 a month by the Americans, and reconstruction contracts have flowed toward those groups that recruit large numbers of volunteers.

But so far, the Iraqi government has resisted American pressure to integrate the Awakening members into Iraq's security forces. Particularly in mixed neighborhoods of Baghdad, only a small portion have been hired.

Hakim, conspicuously perhaps, did not mention finding slots for Awakening members at police academies, nor did he offer a plan for what to do with their members if the groups are disbanded.

The fear among many American commanders is that if the groups are not managed correctly, the security improvements of the past few months could be lost.

Those gains were put into context yesterday by a report from UNICEF. In a report titled "Little Respite for Iraq's Children in 2007," the agency declared that about 2 million Iraqi children suffered this year from a variety of humanitarian ills, including poor nutrition, disease and interrupted education.

Roughly 60 percent of children nationwide lacked reliable access to safe drinking water, the report said. Hundreds of children were killed or injured by the country's sectarian violence while an average of 25,000 children per month were displaced.

UNICEF also asked for donations, identifying the current lull in violence as an opportunity to deliver more services.

Near a police station in Latafiya, south of Baghdad in an area known as the Sunni Triangle, a suicide car bomber killed at least five people, according to an Interior Ministry official. Eight others were wounded.

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