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Iraq takes command of awakening councils

Oct. 1, 2008 - 06:18AM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 1, 2008 - 06:18AM  |  
Salah al-Ageidi, a local Awakening Council commander (center), talks to people at a checkpoint in the district of Dora in Baghdad, Iraq, on Oct. 1. Iraq's government took command of thousands of U.S-backed Sunni fighters who helped quell violence by turning against al-Qaida.
Salah al-Ageidi, a local Awakening Council commander (center), talks to people at a checkpoint in the district of Dora in Baghdad, Iraq, on Oct. 1. Iraq's government took command of thousands of U.S-backed Sunni fighters who helped quell violence by turning against al-Qaida. (LOAY HAMEED / ASSOCIATED PRESS)
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BAGHDAD — Iraq's Shiite-led government took command Wednesday of thousands of U.S-backed mostly Sunni fighters who turned against al-Qaida, pledging to integrate them into public life in recognition of their help in quelling violence.

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BAGHDAD — Iraq's Shiite-led government took command Wednesday of thousands of U.S-backed mostly Sunni fighters who turned against al-Qaida, pledging to integrate them into public life in recognition of their help in quelling violence.

About 100,000 fighters, known as Sons of Iraq or awakening councils, had been under U.S. military supervision and were paid by the Americans for the last two years.

They are now being transferred to Iraqi military control. The first group — about 54,000 fighters in the Baghdad area — came under Iraqi supervision Wednesday and will receive their first payments from the government in November.

Over time, the government plans to find them jobs in the army, police or elsewhere in the public sector.

"The government affirms its commitment to integrate the members into public life so that they take part in building Iraq," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a statement.

U.S. officials are watching to see whether the government lives up to that pledge, fearing that if the fighters feel cheated, many of them will turn against the government.

A U.S. military spokesman, Capt. Charles Calio, praised the Sunni fighters, saying they "continue to play a significant role in improving and maintaining security throughout the country."

Despite government assurances, many of the Sunni fighters remain deeply suspicious of Shiite authorities and were distressed when the Americans agreed to transfer responsibility to the Iraqi leadership.

"I consider the transfer an act of betrayal by the U.S. Army," said Salah al-Ageidi, a 35-year-old fighter at a checkpoint in the mostly Sunni Baghdad neighborhood of Dora. "I think the government will start to target me and my people after the transfer."

He said he and his comrades fear retribution from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government as well as al-Qaida. He said many of his fighters have fled Iraq in past weeks.

"We are trapped between two enemies," he said.

Other fighters, however, said they would take the government at its word.

"We have no problem with the transfer, and we are happy to take orders from our brothers in the (Iraqi) army rather than take orders from the occupation army," said Ali Abdul-Jabar, 30, referring to the Americans.

"We are willing to deal with the Iraqi government because we have one common goal — to defeat terrorism," said Abdul-Jabar, speaking from his office in the primarily Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah in northern Baghdad.

In a different part of Azamiyah, Sabar al-Mishhadani, 30, dressed in a traditional white Arab robe, said he is certain that al-Qaida will intensify efforts to target those who turned against the terror movement.

Still, he's convinced he is doing the right thing.

"We have risked our lives in order to protect our people, not to gain posts," he said. "It is easier for us to deal with our fellow citizens rather than the Americans."

As part of the transfer, the Iraqi government will pay salaries of about 54,000 fighters in Baghdad province.

Monthly income is expected to be about $300, the same amount that the Americans are paying.

However, the Americans paid more to sheiks and other community leaders who raised their own Awakening Council forces. The Iraqi government has committed to paying everyone the same amount.

Also Wednesday, a car bomb killed four people near a Shiite shrine in Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad, according to the U.S. military and the director of the city's main hospital, Qassim al-Qaisi.

An additional 29 people were injured, al-Qaisi said, though the U.S. military put the number of wounded at 17.

The bomb went off about 100 yards away from the shrine of Sayyid Mohammed in a parking lot where pilgrims leave their cars, police officials said on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

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