News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraq4 Sunni allies of U.S. killed in Iraq

4 Sunni allies of U.S. killed in Iraq

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New York Times: Four members of an American-backed neighborhood watch group in Diyala Province were killed Wednesday when a house they were raiding exploded, the police said. The New York Times

By DAMIEN CAVE
Published: December 27, 2007

BAGHDAD — Four members of an American-backed neighborhood watch group in Diyala Province were killed Wednesday when a house they were raiding exploded, the police said.

The blast, north of Baquba, the provincial capital, also wounded at least four people. It was one of several attacks this month against the volunteer Awakening groups and their members, who are also known as Concerned Local Citizens.

On Tuesday, several members of an Awakening group were killed by a suicide truck bomber near a checkpoint outside the Baiji oil refinery, in northern Iraq.

The Awakening groups are predominantly Sunni, and have grown to 72,000 volunteers in nearly 300 communities in Iraq. They have been credited with reducing violence in some of Iraq’s most violent areas even as many — mainly Shiites, but some Sunnis — worry that the groups could destabilize Iraq because many of them include former insurgents who still battle one another and denounce the Shiite-led national government as an illegitimate pawn of Iran.

American and Iraqi officials have said in recent weeks that the groups eventually should be disbanded to avoid competition with the Iraqi Army and the police. Under a proposal from the Americans, who still pay most members about $300 a month to take part, some of the Awakening groups would be integrated into the security forces while members of a larger portion would get civilian jobs from the government or private industry.

The details of the jobs program are incomplete. Philip T. Reeker, a spokesman for the American Embassy in Baghdad, said Wednesday that the Americans and Iraq’s Ministry of Finance had each contributed $155 million for the transition, which would include vocational training at some of Iraq’s technical colleges.

“The logic behind the Concerned Local Citizens program, the Awakening movements, was always to have them link up with government of Iraq,” he said. “The nature of these linkages is what we’re still working through.”

At a news conference with Mr. Reeker in the Green Zone, Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner, the top American military spokesman in Baghdad, said that the movements had grown very quickly and that Iraqis were still learning how to trust former enemies.

“This is a period of transition, and, as we all know, transitions take time,” he said. “They require confidence-building and flexibility, and they require transparency and teamwork. The Concerned Local Citizens, the government of Iraq and the coalition are all focusing on exactly those issues.”

He emphasized that the groups began to spread across Iraq only this summer, taking on Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the homegrown Sunni extremist group that American intelligence officials say is led by foreigners.

Although some Awakening members have been involved in vigilante-style violence and the government has become more vocal in its criticism of the groups over the past week, General Bergner called for a deeper appreciation for what the groups had accomplished.

“This is perhaps one of the most important developments in 2007, the commitment of Iraq citizens at the local level to step forward and confront Al Qaeda and push them out of their communities,” he said. “That is what this Awakening and Concerned Local Citizens — that is what this whole discussion should start with and come back to.”

He also identified an insurgent killed by American troops on Nov. 8 as a senior leader of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

Muhammad Sulayman Shunaythir al-Zubai, also known as Abu Abdullah, mainly worked from western Baghdad to just east of Falluja. General Bergner described him as “an experienced bomb maker and attack planner who coordinated numerous attacks on coalition and Iraqi forces over the past three years.”

The military contends that he was directly involved in at least five attacks on Iraqi civilians or American forces, including attacks on voters in the December 2005 referendum on Iraq’s Constitution. In early 2006, he lost his left arm below the elbow in a battle with American troops and moved his base of operations north, to Salahuddin Province.

He was killed in his car, the military said, after trying to evade American forces.

The Americans also announced that two American soldiers had been killed and three had been wounded in a gun battle north of Baghdad, in Nineveh Province.

General Bergner said northern Iraq was increasingly the focus of Sunni insurgent attacks. Referring to the region, he said, “This is going to be a tough fight.”

Karim Hilmi contributed reporting.

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