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BAGHDAD — Leaders of U.S.-backed Sunni paramilitary organizations said Monday they feared that a crackdown against one of their groups in Baghdad may be part of a purge of their ranks by the Shiite-led government before American troops pull out of Iraq.
U.S.-backed Iraqi soldiers regained control of a central Baghdad slum Sunday and disarmed a government-allied paramilitary group that launched a two-day uprising to protest the arrest of their leader. At least four people were killed and 21 wounded in the two days of fighting.
The leader of Sunni paramilitaries in Diyala province, a lawless area at the northeastern gates of the capital, threatened Monday to stop security cooperation with U.S. and Iraqi forces if the jailed leader were not freed.
U.S. and Iraqi officials sought to downplay fears that the move in the Fadhil district of the capital was aimed at suppressing the Awakening Councils — Sunnis who turned against al-Qaida and now help Iraqi forces provide security in areas that were once in the grip of insurgents.
Promoting the councils, which the U.S. calls Sons of Iraq, are one of the main pillars of the American strategy for stabilizing Iraq.
U.S. commanders believe the Awakening Councils were the key to turning the tide against Sunni insurgents in 2007. There have been fears that some fighters may return to the insurgency if they feel threatened by the government.
That could undermine U.S. plans to remove all combat troops from Baghdad and other cities by the end of June and end the U.S. combat role in Iraq by September 2010.
A U.S. statement said the Fadhil leader, Adel al-Mashhadani, was arrested Saturday on a December 2008 warrant charging him with a number of offenses, including planting roadside bombs, extortion, robbery and links to al-Qaida.
An Iraqi spokesman also alleged he had formed a secret cell loyal to Saddam Hussein's disbanded political party.
Those allegations were received with skepticism by some Awakening Council leaders.
"I wonder why these accusations against Adel Al-Mashhadani were raised at this time when they depended on him before," said Sabbar al-Mashhadani, leader of a north Baghdad Awakening group and no relation to the commander in Fadhil.
"I think there are other motives by the same sides that put up obstacles" against the councils, he said — a veiled reference to Shiite religious parties that have never fully trusted the Sunni groups.
The leader of the Sunni councils in Diyala, Nazar al-Daghestani, demanded the government release al-Mashhadani and pull troops out of Fadhil or his followers would stop manning checkpoints and assisting U.S. and Iraqi forces with security patrols.
Such a move would force the government to send more police and soldiers to Diyala, where Sunni and Shiite militants still operate.
The leader of the Awakening Councils in the Diyala provincial capital of Baqouba, Khaled Khodeir al-Luhaibi, said the crackdown in Fadhil was an "Iranian request."
"The government is loyal to Iran. When you end the Awakenings, then Iran can do as it pleases in Iraq," he said. "We are worried and we cannot hide it. When the Americans leave, we will be caught between the Iraqi government that is pursuing us and al-Qaida which wants to take revenge on us."
Shogaa al-Aazami, an Awakening Council commander in west Baghdad, said the crackdown in Fadhil followed the arrest two days before of a council leader in the city's Ghazaliyah district.
"I informed the American soldiers and they are following the matter," he said without elaboration.
The U.S. military had been paying the Awakening Councils until last October, when responsibility was transferred to the Iraqi government. Many council members complain of delays in pay, which U.S. and Iraqi officials blame on red tape.
Also Monday, two people were killed and seven injured when a bomb hidden in a bicycle exploded northeast of Baghdad in Baqouba, provincial police reported.
An Iraqi soldier was killed and two others were wounded when a roadside bomb exploded alongside their patrol in the western part of Mosul, police said. A member of Iraq's largest Sunni party was assassinated in Mosul, police and his Iraqi Islamic Party announced Monday.
The party is locked in power struggles with various groups in Mosul ahead of national elections at the end of the year.