Clashes erupt in Iraq over Sunni paramilitaries

While violent clashes took place in Baghdad between Sunni “Sons of Iraq” leaders and Iraqi government forces over the weekend, some former Baathists are involved in secret talks with the government, Iraqi sources report.

At least 18 people were wounded in Baghdad’s Fadhil neighborhood Saturday and Sunday in fighting between supporters of U.S.-sponsored Sunni militias and Iraqi government forces, after Iraqi troops arrested Adel Mashhadani, the commander of the Sunni force in the neighborhood, according to news reports.

Ali al Dabbagh, a government spokesman, said Mashhadani had led a secret Baathist cell — referring to Saddam Hussein’s Baath party — and was creating an anti-government force, Leila Fadel of McClatchy Newspapers reported.

'He killed and terrified the people, he was creating his own forces and leading a Baath party group,' Dabbagh said. 'We support the Sons of Iraq but we will not agree to these people who are killing.'

The U.S. military said Sunday in a statement that Mashhadani — who was on the U.S. payroll for at least a year — is suspected of criminal acts including extortion and killings.

According to Fadel, Mashhadani, an outspoken critic of the government, “ruled his district as a personal fiefdom.”

The U.S. last year made deals with thousands of former armed insurgents, many with ties to the Baath Party, providing them with arms and cash to patrol neighborhoods, first in Anbar Province and then in Baghdad.

Iraqi Communist Party spokesperson Salam Ali warned last year that some of these former Baathists, with the help of U.S. cash and weaponry, were turning into local “warlords.”

On Sunday, with Iraqi soldiers sealing off their Baghdad neighborhood, the paramilitary members surrendered, gave up their weapons and agreed to allow U.S. and Iraqi troops to search homes for more arms. They turned over 10 Iraqi soldiers they had been holding late Saturday night, said Ali Abdel Razak, a deputy leader of the Sons of Iraq in Fadhil.

The government said it would not release Mashhadani, but Abdel Razak said tribal leaders from Anbar to Baghdad were involved in negotiations.

Mashhadani was the second Sunni leader arrested in Baghdad in less than a week. Last Tuesday Raad Ali, another top leader of a Sunni paramilitary, was detained in a midnight raid in the Ghazaliyah neighborhood.

Unlike Mashhadani, according to Fadel, Raad Ali and his men “seemed eager to join the Iraqi government and move from the margins to the mainstream of Iraqi society.”

Awakening groups accuse Iraqi troops and police of torturing members of their groups who have been detained.

But another major issue for these groups appears to be financial.

The 100,000 Awakening Council/Sons of Iraq “volunteers” hired by the U.S. were paid an average of $300 a month, a large sum for Iraqis. The Iraqi government said it would integrate many of them into government security forces or provide other jobs.

Fadel reports that members of the Sons of Iraq patrolling in Baqouba complain that they haven't been paid in three months. The same complaint is also heard in Baghdad.

'They said we'd be in the police or army, and the opposite happened,' said Ahmed Farris Awad as he stood guard in the middle of a street. 'They started detaining us. But we are still doing our duty.'

Meanwhile, the Aswat al-Iraq (Voices of Iraq) news agency reports that some members of the dissolved Baath party are involved in secret talks with the Iraqi government. It follows recent calls by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for reconciliation with former Baath members.

The Baath party itself is banned under Iraq’s Constitution.

One Baathist leader told Aswat al-Iraq that “there is no wrong in entering the political process and trying to get Iraq out of its current situation employing diplomatic and peaceful ways.”

“Everyone knows that we negotiated with the government and we may return to take participate in the political process,” he pointed out.

At the same time, Aswat al-Iraq reported, other Baath leaders have rejected Maliki’s reconciliation call.

The Iraqi Communist Party has described a “process of metamorphosis” among the Baathists. “They no longer represent the Baath Party as an entity — it is beset by splits and bickering,” Salam Ali said. “Many of them have come to the conclusion that their methods have left them isolated and they need to get into the political process before it’s too late. People close to such groups are concerned about their political future when the Americans leave.”

This weekend’s clashes in Baghdad appear to be part of this overall political power struggle, playing out day to day in the streets.

suewebb @ pww.org