US delivers a blow to Iraqi infiltrators

Airstrike targets Sunni gunmen planting bomb

By Robert H. Reid
Associated Press / April 4, 2009
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BAGHDAD - A US aircraft fired on suspected government-allied Sunni paramilitaries planting a bomb, killing one and wounding two, US military officials said yesterday, the latest sign of trouble in a program that has been a pillar of the US strategy to stabilize Iraq.

Iraq's prime minister said he was not ready to give up on the paramilitary program, known variously as Sons of Iraq and Awakening Councils, but warned he would not tolerate subversives in the ranks despite the groups' role in helping stabilize the country.

A US statement said the airstrike was launched Thursday night after four gunmen, allegedly members of the Sons of Iraq, were seen planting a roadside bomb near Taji, site of a large US air base about 12 miles north of Baghdad.

Sons of Iraq are Sunnis who broke with the insurgents and now work with the army and police to provide security in their areas.

US commanders credit the more than 90,000 Sons of Iraq with playing a major role in turning the tide against Al Qaeda and other Sunni insurgents following the US troop surge of 2007.

But the Shi'ite-led government is suspicious of the groups because they include many former insurgents. Shi'ite leaders also believe some of the members are infiltrators who are still working for the insurgents.

Last weekend, US-backed Iraqi forces put down an uprising in central Baghdad by members of the local Awakening Council angry over the arrest of their commander on terrorism and criminal charges.

The US statement said one of the gunmen was found dead at the scene of Thursday's attack and the two wounded were captured in a nearby house. They were handed over to Iraqi police.

"While we value our Sons of Iraq brothers, these men had broken faith with their fellow Sons of Iraq, the Iraqi people, and us," said Major General Daniel Bolger, commander of US forces in the Baghdad area.

The attack occurred in a rural area where several bombings had occurred in recent months, the US statement said.

Taji residents reached by telephone said the Thursday incident followed a growing rift between the local Sunni paramilitaries and the mostly Shi'ite security forces.

The residents, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears of reprisals, said the security forces consider the Sunni council members disobedient, although they are supposed to take orders from Iraqi soldiers.

Council members, on the other hand, believe they never got full credit for pushing Al Qaeda from the area and feel betrayed by the Americans, who raised the force but transferred it to Iraqi control last October.

Tension between the two sides rose in Taji after the crackdown on the Awakening Council group in the Baghdad neighborhood of Fadhil, the residents said.

An Awakening Council leader in another Baghdad neighborhood, Dora, said yesterday that Iraqi forces had arrested four members in the past few days because of alleged links to Al Qaeda.

Police also picked up the head of the Awakening Council in Muqdadiyah, an insurgency flashpoint town 60 miles northeast of Baghdad, the local military command said.

Mohammed al-Jibouri, head of the Dora group, said he suspected the arrests were based on false tips from Al Qaeda sympathizers in revenge for the terror movement's setbacks in the tense neighborhood.

"At the beginning, we were fighting Al Qaeda, and we succeeded in imposing peace," he said. "Now, we are worried because we are now put between the two fires of Al Qaeda and the US-Iraqi forces."

In an interview aired yesterday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite, said he appreciated the contribution of the Sunni paramilitaries in the fight against Al Qaeda. But he said Iraqi intelligence had reports that Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein loyalists had infiltrated the movement.