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Iraqi Forces Raid Home Of Pro-U.S. Group Leader

BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraqi security forces have raided the home of a provincial leader of U.S.-backed patrols, an incident that could raise tension at a time when the Baghdad government is taking over the program from the U.S. military.

Mullah Shihab al-Safi, leader of the Awakening movement for the volatile Diyala Governorate north of Baghdad, told Reuters troops had raided his house before dawn, arresting his brother and father, in Buhriz, south of the provincial capital Ba'qubah.

Safi said by telephone he was not at home at the time and was now moving from place to place to avoid capture. He later said his brother and father were released after several hours.

Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Abd al-Karim Khalaf said an operation had been carried out to capture suspects he said were accused of terrorism and murder.

He gave no further details and declined to comment on the identity of the suspects, but said no one would have been arrested without a criminal warrant.

The Awakening groups are made up mostly of Sunni Arabs and include many former insurgents who battled U.S. forces and the Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad, but since have been recruited and paid by the U.S. military to run neighborhood patrols.

The Iraqi government has been taking over the program from the U.S. military, beginning this month in Baghdad and spreading to other provinces in coming months.

Officials say they will incorporate 20 percent of the patrol members into the army and police while finding civilian jobs or training for the rest.

But many Awakening leaders say they fear mass arrests from a government that remains hostile to them.

"They have been arresting the leaders for a while. The government are going back on their promises," Safi said.

Safi said the government troops had also raided the home of the provincial spokesman for the Awakening groups, Laith Salih, and beat him before arresting him.

Diyala has been one of the most volatile parts of Iraq, with Sunni militants staging frequent suicide and car-bomb attacks. The U.S. military says it is one of the areas where the militants have regrouped since being driven out of other areas.