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In Iraq, Shiite leaders begin to push back against US-supported Sunni groups

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, said the 'awakening councils' must side with the government

By / December 21, 2007

One of Iraq's most powerful Shiite politicians urged the government there on Friday to curb the expanding influence of the country's so-called "Awakening Councils," largely Sunni groups who have been financed by the United States to fight Al Qaeda and other militants in the country.

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The emergence of the councils earlier this year has been instrumental in curbing attacks on US troops in places like Anbar Province. But the Associated Press points to signs of growing unease among Iraq's majority Shiite leaders over the arms and training being given to tribal Sunnis, who generally view Shiites with contempt.

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, told worshippers gathered near his office in southwest Baghdad that the so-called awakening groups, many of whom once fought against U.S. forces but have since turned their guns on extremists, must side with the government. "I stress the necessity of having the awakening councils be on the side of the government in chasing terrorists and criminals, but not be a substitute for it," al-Hakim said. "Weapons should be within the hands of the government only."
He went on to say that the groups should be active in areas where there is still much fighting — such as volatile Diyala province — but that they should stand down in areas where Sunnis and Shiites live side by side, fearing the Sunni factions will stir up sectarian strife.
Iraq's Shiite-led government has been deeply suspicious of the tribal militias, fearing that they could turn against Iraqi security forces in the future.

The United States has been pushing the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government to integrate the awakening groups into the Army or police. That's something the Iraqis have been reluctant to do so far, worried that their guns might end up turned on them.

But the Americans have been arguing that the young Sunnis are taking major risks and that rewarding them would be a step toward national reconciliation. The danger to them was brought home on Thursday, when 13 members of a US-organized group in Baquba were killed, along with a US soldier, by a suicide bombing.

U.S. forces said the suicide bomber struck a foot patrol near a building where a city council meeting was to be held, killing one soldier and wounding 10. Iraqi police said the building was also being used to recruit volunteers for neighborhood patrols, 13 of whom were killed and 10 wounded.
U.S. forces are paying mostly Sunni Arab men to join neighborhood patrols to fight Sunni al Qaeda militants, a tactic Washington says has helped curb violence.
But the patrols have been increasingly targeted, especially in provinces like Diyala where U.S. commanders say al Qaeda has regrouped after being pushed out of other parts of Iraq.

While such incidents make it appear that mainstream Shiites and Sunnis have a common enemy in Iraq, a new report from the US Institute of Peace, written by Rend Rahim Francke, who is Iraqi, argues that while security has improved dramatically in Iraq in recent months, there are few signs that is enabling sectarian reconciliation.