BAGHDAD (AP) — A top Shiite politician on Thursday acknowledged the contribution of U.S.-backed Sunni Arab groups to the decline in violence across Iraq and called for their use in the continuing fight against al-Qaida. Meanwhile, the U.S. military reported the deaths of three soldiers — the first Americans killed in the new year.
Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim's praise for the role of the Sunni groups, many of which had fought U.S. and Iraq's Shiite-dominated security forces before switching sides last year, runs contrary to the hard-line position recently taken by Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki's government.
The government said last month it will disband the groups, known as Awakening Councils in some regions and Concerned Local Citizens in others, after restive areas are calmed. It said it did not want them to be a separate military force and would not allow them to have any infrastructure, such as offices.
The Sunni militias, more than 70,000-strong, have been credited by U.S. commanders as being instrumental in what they say is a nearly 60 percent reduction in violence in the last six months. It also was affected by the dispatch of additional U.S. troops and a six-month cease-fire declared in August by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his militia.
But al-Maliki's government has been deeply uneasy about the potential for the Sunni fighters — now better organized and armed — to switch sides again, posing a threat to stability and the Shiite domination that followed the ouster of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime.
However, al-Hakim, head of parliament's largest bloc and the country's most powerful political party, was conciliatory in his comments Thursday, although his praise for the Sunni groups was moderate and he did not say whether their future role should be permanent.
Noting the decline in violence, he said the credit should go to the role played by the groups, adding: "We still believe in the necessity of continuing with this strategy."