As U.S. President Barack Obama called on Iraqis
to "make political accommodations" and take "responsibility" for their country during a surprise visit to gauge progress there, officials in Baghdad were grappling with a case that could well indicate how prepared they are to tackle a key obstacle to progress.
Tensions are running deep in the Iraqi capital following the arrest of the commander of a local Sunni militia group and many of his fighters -- one of many "Awakening Councils" that were paid by the United States to battle insurgents and Al-Qaeda militants.
Former members of the Awakening Councils now fear further arrests by Shi'ite-led government forces, and the way the Iraqi government deals with the issue is seen as a telling test of sectarian reconciliation.
The councils are credited with playing a crucial role in defeating Al-Qaeda militants in Anbar Province when the U.S. military beefed up its forces during what was dubbed "surge" operations in Iraq in 2007.
The U.S. military also credits Sunni Awakening groups with playing a key role in a nationwide drop in violence -- including areas in and around Baghdad -- that coincided with the increase of U.S. forces.
The awakening groups are mostly local Sunni militias -- often comprised of former insurgents or insurgent sympathizers who took payments from the U.S. military and turned against Al-Qaeda.
But the United States stopped paying the Awakening groups in November. Growing Distrust?
Instead, some Sunni fighters were promised they would be integrated into Iraq's security forces. Others were told they would receive monthly payments of about $300 from Iraq's Shi'a-led government -- at least until they were reintegrated into civilian life and found other jobs.
Adel al-Mishhadani's arrest for suspected murder and extortion sparked violent clashes in the Iraqi capital.
But already, Iraq's Shi'a-dominated government is two or three months behind on many of those payments.
"The Americans used to give them fixed salaries at regular intervals. They had an understanding that they would be incorporated into the [Iraqi] army, police or even in the intelligence service," says Falih Abdul Jabbar, a sociologist and director of the Iraqi Studies Institute in Beirut. "The Iraqi government is more sensitive to the issue of reincorporation, and they are using these delays in payment as a kind of pressure tool, really, to bring those elements and groups under their control."
In an interview last month with Radio Free Iraq, Tahsin al-Sheikhly, a spokesman for Iraqi government security forces, denied that there were serious conflicts between the Sunni Awakening groups and Iraq's Shi'a-led government.
"The Awakening Councils are part of a government program. They are part of the solution to the security issue. They have the government's respect, appreciation, and attention," Sheikhly said. "The Awakening Councils are the sons of Iraq, and there no differences or problems between this institution and the Iraqi government."
Jabbar claims the failure of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government to pay the Sunni fighters or bring most of them into Iraq's security forces has fueled resentment and distrust.
"The Awakening groups were actually encouraged, organized, funded, and equipped by the U.S. forces in Iraq," Jabbar says. "The [Iraqi] government was detached from that process. Now that [Iraqi officials] are in charge of these groups, they have views different from that of the Americans. And obviously, the awakening groups have greater expectations than the [Iraqi] government is ready to offer."Clashes Follow Arrest
Relations deteriorated further late last month when Iraqi forces arrested Adil al-Mashhadani -- leader of an Awakening group in the Fadil neighborhood of north Baghdad -- on suspicion of murder and extortion.
The arrest triggered clashes between U.S.-backed Iraqi forces and Mashhadani's fighters in the district, which led to scores of the Sunni fighters.
Maliki later insisted that members of the Awakening groups have no immunity and that they will eventually be prospecuted for any crimes they have committed.
Jabbar says Maliki's policies toward the Sunni militias appear to be influenced by widespread fears among Shi'ite officials that former Awakening-group fighters might try to overthrow the government and reestablish the outlawed Ba'ath Party of Saddam Hussein.
"There is a kind of what we call 'coup d'etat syndrome' -- you can see it clearly in the statements of so many Shi'a Islamic leaders who fear that the [Awakening] groups intend to get reincorporated into the army in order to stage a coup d'etat and to bring the Ba'ath back to power -- which is really a myth," Jabbar says. "Yet this myth is being widely circulated here and there, and it seems to have some effect on the decisions of the prime minister."
Mustafa Kamil Shabib, leader of the South Baghdad Awakening Council, told Radio Free Iraq that none of his fighters has defected back to Al-Qaeda and that they all remain loyal to the central government in Baghdad.
"So far I am still in control of my men and they are staying the course," Shabib said. "After all, we are responsible for security in our own locality. We are responsible for maintaining security and creating a safe environment for our families, for our sons, for our government and for our homeland."
But Shabib admitted that some of the Sunni fighters in his militia are concerned about the next moves by Maliki's government.
"Frankly speaking, there are apprehensions that, God willing, will prove to be misplaced," Shabib said. "We hope the prime minister will dispel these concerns by an amnesty to awakening members for incidents that took place prior to their integration into the armed forces."Friend Or Foe?
Maliki continues to insist that rogue elements within any Iraqi militia will face justice if they break the law -- regardless of the role they had played earlier in helping the government tame the insurgency.
Jabbar says that position could lead to more violence and unravel the security gains made in Iraq since the launch of surge operations.
Prime Minister al-Maliki (right) greets tribal leaders in Baghdad in early March.
"Prime Minister Maliki was very, very courageous in taking tough measures against his own Shi'ite groups -- the militias. He convinced the public that he is fair-handed and that he is against all extra-institutional forces, irrespective of their religious, sect, whatever," Jabbar says. "Now these tensions with the Sunni groups may damage the whole process."
Indeed, Baghdad has seen a wave of bombings in the last two days that killed dozens of people, many in Shi'ite neighborhoods of the Iraqi capital.
Interior Ministry officials have declined to comment on whether the bombs were a coordinated strike or reactions to the recent arrests of Awakening Council fighters.
Analyst Kadhum al-Muqdadi, a professor at Baghdad University, concludes that such a connection is "not unlikely."Radio Free Iraq contributed to this story from Baghdad, Tikrit, and Prague