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About 50 people were killed Sunday in three Iraq suicide bombings that targeted members of anti-Al Qaeda militias formed during the so-called Sunni Awakening, some of whom had lined up to collect paychecks outside a military base.
The attacks highlight the key security role of the Awakening councils, many of whom are former insurgents who switched sides to fight for the US-backed government in 2005 and 2006 and are credited with helping turn the tide against Al Qaeda in Iraq. Many are now underpaid and neglected by the Iraqi government, even as they are targeted by radical militants for joining the US-backed side in Iraq's bloody conflict.
Iraq still lacks a stable, strong government months after a chaotic election in March, and its government has slashed salaries and support for the Awakening councils amid the political vacuum.
The first attack Sunday occurred at about 7 a.m. outside an army base southwest of Baghdad in the district of Radwaniyah, according to the Washington Post. Two suicide bombers killed at least 45 and wounded 50 more, including members of the Awakening councils. (See interactive map on Iraq bombings since 2006 from the Post.)
Another suicide bomber targeted an Awakening council headquarters in the town of Qaim near the Syrian border, opening fire and then detonating himself and killing at least three Awakening officials. A third explosion in a village near Radwaniyah targeted a house that Iraqi soldiers were using as a temporary base, killing five officers and soldiers, the Post reported.
The Awakening councils, also known as the Sunni Sahwa militia, "were instrumental in turning the tide on a worsening war during the 2007 US troop surge," the Post wrote. The US funded and supported them but has since turned that role over to the Iraqi government, the Post reports:
Leaders say the groups, once backed and financed by the US military, are withering because of continuing insurgent attacks and the slow pace with which the government is moving them into civilian ministries.
"The Iraqi government is responsible," Khadum Feiad Mezel, 63, said outside the Mahmudiyah hospital, where most of the wounded were taken, as he awaited news about a nephew who had been at the blast site. "There is no other side we blame."
Control of the Sahwa passed to Iraq in October 2008, and their wages – said to have been cut from $300 under US leadership to $100 monthly – have been paid, often late, by the Shia-led government.
The attack in Baghdad took place as Sahwa fighters gathered outside a military base to collect their pay.
"There were more than 150 people sitting on the ground when the explosion took place. I ran, thinking that I was a dead man," Uday Khamis, 24, who was sitting outside the Mahmoudiyah hospital where many of the wounded were taken, said.
Awakening council fighters have been targeted in attacks for their role in helping fight Sunni terrorists, and Al Qaeda in Iraq was likely behind Sunday's bombings, Al Jazeera reported.
The Iraqi government hasn't paid some Awakening council fighters for months, and has arrested some for crimes previously committed when they were insurgents, the Los Angeles Times reports. Many have quit their civilian jobs and others have been assassinated, weakening security around Baghdad:
The Sunni fighters now describe themselves as caught between radicals seeking revenge and a suspicious army that is just as likely to arrest them as pay them.
"The sons of the Awakening are paying with their blood," Sheik Ali Hatem Sulaiman, a senior tribal leader associated with the movement, said on Al Arabiya satellite TV. "We haven't seen the government, politicians or the Americans finding a solution to this problem."
Politically, the Awakening councils are aligned with the Unity Alliance of Iraq, a "non-sectarian grouping of parties and individuals who portray themselves as secular nationalists," according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The New York Times offers a backgrounder on Awakening councils in Iraq by region. The BBC also provides a backgrounder on the formation of the Sunni Awakening councils, otherwise known as the Sons of Iraq or "Concerned Local Citizens' Groups."
The Associated Press offers this raw video report on Sunday's bombings: