What's Behind the Latest Sunni-Shiite Clashes in Iraq

The government risks more sectarian violence by failing to keep promises to Sons of Iraq group.

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A flare-up of sectarian violence after the arrest of a key leader of Iraq's Sunni Awakening movement renews questions about whether the recent calm will endure as the Obama administration begins to wind down the U.S. military role in the country.

Gun battles broke out late last week between Iraqi security forces and former Sunni insurgents who were considered pacified by the Awakening movement. Iraqi and American forces reportedly now have disarmed the rebellious Awakening Council in the Fadhil area of Baghdad. But the clashes highlight the ongoing tension between the Shiite-led government and former Sunni insurgents in the program, who say that the government is failing to fulfill its obligations to them.

The so-called Sons of Iraq program, in which nearly 100,000 Iraqis were put on the U.S. payroll to man neighborhood security stations and provide intelligence to U.S. and Iraqi security forces, has been widely credited with being one of the major factors in disassembling what had been a brutal insurgency.

But now the danger, U.S. military officials fear, is that by angering members of the Awakening movement, the government could drive former insurgents back toward civil war or into alliances with homegrown terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Senior U.S. military commanders on the ground have been warning that this was a possibility since October. That was when the Iraqi government took over responsibility for cutting the paychecks for the Sons of Iraq.

It seems clear that U.S. commanders had cause for concern. SOI leaders throughout the country have complained that they haven't been paid in months. One U.S. military spokesman said that the dearth of paychecks was the result of a problem with the Ministry of the Interior's payroll process and that it had been rectified recently.

Beyond payroll issues, the government has failed to incorporate these Sunnis into the predominately Shiite Iraqi security forces as the U.S. government said would happen. While the Iraqi government had promised to allow one fifth of the SOI members, or 19,000, to join security forces, only 5,000 had been given jobs. Sunni SOI leaders attribute this to animosity among the majority-Shiite government leaders and fears that members of the Awakening movement could turn against them as U.S. forces withdraw.

The simmering issue moved into the spotlight last week with the arrest of Adil al-Mashhadani, a Sunni leader who was handcuffed and brought in on terrorism charges. He had been an outspoken critic of what many believe to be the Iraqi government's marginalization the Sons of Iraq.

U.S. military officials have been careful to reassure other SOI leaders that al-Mashhadani, rather than the movement itself, is being targeted. Al-Mashhadani is accused of committing "terrorist acts," according to a U.S. military press release, including extorting some $160,000 a month in bribes from local taxi drivers and planting roadside bombs with the aim of taking out Iraqi soldiers and police.

Some Sons of Iraq said that they supported the arrest of a man who had been terrorizing locals and promoting sectarianism. But others vowed to once again take up arms against the government if al-Mashhadani is not released.

At the very least, one SOI leader told the Associated Press, if he and his compatriots are not paid by the end of April, "we will abandon our work." What sort of employment they might take up next is the U.S. military's chief cause of concern.