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Prominent Iraqi Sunni Fighter Sentenced To Death

BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- A U.S.-backed Sunni militia leader whose arrest provoked violence between Sunni fighters and forces of Iraq's Shi'ite-led government has been sentenced to death for murder and kidnapping, a court spokesman said.

Adil al-Mashhadani, who controlled part of east Baghdad's crime-ridden al-Fadhil neighborhood, is one of thousands of Sunni insurgents who now back U.S. forces after turning against Al-Qaeda.

The arrest of some of them after they switched sides has sparked anger among so-called Sahwa members, who fear the Shi'ite-led government is out to get them for crimes committed in their insurgent pasts.

Three people were killed and 15 wounded in clashes between Iraqi security forces and Mashhadani supporters when he was arrested in March.

An Iraqi criminal court sentenced him to death on November 19 on charges of kidnapping and murder, said Abdul Satar Birqadr, spokesman for Iraq's High Judicial Council. The ruling can be appealed, he said.

Sahwa fighters are covered by an amnesty for crimes committed while fighting Al-Qaeda or other insurgents. U.S. officials say they understand the charges against Mashhadani referred to offenses that took place after the amnesty period.

The Shi'ite-led government's approach to former Sunni insurgents it once fought is considered a major test of reconciliation after years of sectarian bloodshed unleashed by the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Analysts have warned that many insurgents could return to violence if they fear for their safety and feel targeted by the government, or cannot find jobs.

The government has promised to find positions for them in the Iraqi security forces or government ministries, but progress toward that goal has been slow. U.S. officials blame budget constraints, but some Sahwa leaders blame mistrust.