BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraqi forces have arrested two Sunni Arab neighbourhood guards, a security spokesman said on Saturday, after a string of other arrests in Baghdad that raised tensions.
U.S.-backed Sunni Arab fighters who switched sides to fight al Qaeda in late 2006 have been key to reducing violence in the capital and elsewhere, but many have been dismayed by the past week’s arrests and attacks on guards accused of criminal acts.
Baghdad security spokesman Qassim al-Moussawi said the two were detained in the capital’s southern Dora district four days ago. He did not say why.
Last Saturday, Iraqi forces seized Adil al-Mashhadani, head of a patrol unit in central Baghdad’s Fadhil neighbourhood, sparking clashes with his supporters that killed three people.
Moussawi said 32 others were detained in Fadhil, 11 of them already released, with the others staying in for questioning.
The Sunni fighters, who once numbered close to 100,000 across Iraq according to U.S. military statistics, were backed and paid by U.S. forces until the Shi’ite-led government took over their programme, a process they completed this week. Many are former insurgents and have feared they would be arrested for past crimes after the government took control of their programme from U.S. forces late last year. Their treatment by the Iraqi government is being seen as a barometer of reconciliation after years of vicious sectarian warfare.
Iraqi officials insist Mashhadani was wanted for grave crimes, including extortion and running a bomb-making factory. They deny that they are targeting the Sunni patrol groups, known as Awakening Councils — “Majalis al-Sahwa” in Arabic. “The security forces are merely executing the orders of the courts,” Moussawi said. “When we have information on a wanted person whether from a Sahwa or not, we carry out the orders.” He added that out of the 50,000-odd Sahwa guards in Baghdad, there were bound to be some wanted for crimes. But Sahwa members interviewed by Reuters said many of the people U.S. and Iraqi forces use as informants are corrupt. “We hope the government won’t rely on secret informants,” said Yousif Ahmed al-Zubaidi, a Sahwa leader in Dora. “We call upon them to make sure of reports before issuing warrants.”
In separate incidents this week, U.S. forces opened fire on a group of fighters they said could belong to a Sahwa unit, killing one, after spotting them planting a bomb. Iraqi police arrested Hussam Alwan, a Sahwa leader in the town of Moqtadiya, 80 km (50 miles) northeast of Baghdad on Friday.