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Iraqi Shi'ite leader wants US-backed units curbed - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraq’s powerful Shi’ite Muslim leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, called on Friday for curbs on U.S.-backed neighbourhood patrol units, which are mainly Sunni, saying weapons should only be in the hands of the government.

Hakim, head of the biggest party in the Shi’ite-led government, praised the role of the patrols, known to Iraqis as “Awakening Councils”, in contributing to a sharp drop in violence but said they should only play an auxillary role. “It is necessary that these Awakenings should be an arm of the government in chasing criminals and terrorists but not a substitute for it,” he told hundreds of Shi’ites at his Baghdad compound in a speech marking the Muslim Eid al-Adha feast. “Weapons should only be in the hands of the government.”

The United States puts the number of the mainly Sunni Arab patrolmen at some 71,000 and credits them as an effective force in fighting Sunni al Qaeda militants.

The U.S. military, which pays most of the men around $10 each a day, acknowledges that some of them may have had links to insurgent groups but says they are screened to weed out those responsible for attacks.

Hakim said the patrols should be religiously mixed wherever possible, reflecting the discomfort of Iraqi Shi’ites leaders over the prospect of organised Sunni armed groups that could turn against them once U.S. forces withdraw.

Under U.S. pressure, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government has decided to put most of the neighbourhood patrols on its payroll by mid-2008. It says it will integrate some Awakenings members into its security forces while others will be given training for civilian jobs.

Hakim also said the neighbourhood patrols should only serve in “hot” areas where violence was still a threat.

U.S. and Iraqi officials say violence has dropped to its lowest levels in nearly two years but warn that al Qaeda is regrouping in areas like the province of Diyala north of Baghdad after they were driven out of former strongholds.

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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