Baghdad Arrest Sets Off Clashes

Awakening Council members stand guard in the Dora neighborhood of Baghdad, formerly a Sunni insurgent haven. An Awakening commander in Dora said he now has to add Americans and the Iraqi government to his list of worries.
Awakening Council members stand guard in the Dora neighborhood of Baghdad, formerly a Sunni insurgent haven. An Awakening commander in Dora said he now has to add Americans and the Iraqi government to his list of worries. (By Loay Hameed -- Associated Press)

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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 29, 2009

BAGHDAD, March 28 -- American and Iraqi forces arrested an influential U.S. ally Saturday, triggering fierce clashes in central Baghdad that threatened to disrupt a key pillar of American efforts to stabilize the capital as combat forces draw down.

As Apache helicopter gunships cruised above Baghdad's Fadhil neighborhood, former Sunni insurgents fought from rooftops and street corners against American and Iraqi forces, according to witnesses, the Iraqi military and police. At least 15 people were wounded in the gunfights, which lasted several hours. By nightfall, the street fighters had taken five Iraqi soldiers hostage.

The battles, the most ferocious in nearly a year in Baghdad, erupted minutes after the arrest of Adil Mashadani, the leader of the Fadhil Awakening Council, which is composed mostly of former Sunni insurgents who allied themselves with the U.S. military in exchange for monthly salaries that are now paid by Iraq's government.

The formation of Awakening councils across Iraq, which include an estimated 100,000 fighters, is widely credited with bringing down levels of violence in many Sunni insurgent strongholds such as Fadhil. But mistrust has lingered between the councils and Iraq's Shiite leaders; Saturday's violence put on display these tensions, which appear to be deepening.

"We will fight them till the end if they don't release him," declared Abu Mirna, a spokesman for the Fadhil Awakening Council. As he spoke by phone, the sounds of heavy gunfire could be heard in the background.

Iraq's chief military spokesman, Gen. Qassim Atta, said an arrest warrant had been issued for Mashadani and an aide for committing "terrorist acts."

U.S. military commanders have expressed concern that many Awakening fighters, dubbed the Sons of Iraq by the U.S. military, could end up returning to supporting the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq if they feel oppressed by the government. Most Awakening groups have been transferred to Iraqi government control, much to the dissatisfaction of many of their leaders.

In recent months, Iraqi security forces have targeted dozens of Awakening leaders in Baghdad, Anbar and Diyala provinces for past crimes, fearing they could turn against them once U.S. troops withdraw. And for the past year, many Awakening commanders and fighters have expressed frustration over late salary payments and low acceptance rates into Iraq's security forces.

On Saturday, a U.S. military spokesman said that Mashadani was not arrested for his role as an Awakening leader and that the groups were not being targeted.

"The Sons of Iraq have provided a great service to the people of Iraq," said Col. Bill Buckner, a U.S. military spokesman. "The security improvements during the last two years would not have been possible without their honorable contribution and sacrifice."

In Fadhil, anger mounted against the American military. Awakening fighters said they felt betrayed for the support role the U.S. troops played in Mashadani's arrest. By Saturday night, U.S. armored vehicles patrolled the streets; others were positioned at entrances to the neighborhoods. American snipers flashed green laser lights at approaching vehicles signaling them to turn around.

Abu Mirna said it was too early to decide whether the fighters would break off their alliance with the U.S. military. But it was clear their relationship had been tainted by Mashadani's arrest and Saturday's clashes.

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