BAQUBA - U.S.-backed Sunni militants have challenged the U.S.-backed Iraqi
government in Baghdad and demanded political power after two women were killed
by government forces.
Tensions rose earlier this month when men dressed in Iraqi security personnel
uniforms kidnapped two women. Their naked bodies were found later.
After the incident, the "Awakening Groups" in Baquba, 25 mi. northeast
of Baghdad, gave Shia police chief Gen. Ghanim al-Qureyshi until midday Friday
to apologize and to arrest the men responsible.
"We hereby declare suspension of all cooperation with U.S. military, Iraqi
security forces, and the local government," Abu Abdullah, spokesman for
the Awakening Council in Diyala province, announced after the deadline passed.
On Saturday hundreds of members of the Awakening Council shut their offices
and held three separate demonstrations in Baquba. The government in Baghdad
promised to send a committee to investigate the incident, after which the Awakening
Council of Diyala resumed security of the city.
Although the Awakening Groups have resumed security duties, they asked residents
to stop going to their offices or shops for three days, Feb. 9-11.
On Sunday fighters from these groups entered the office of the directorate-general
of education and ordered employees to leave, Abu Harith, a fighter with the
Awakening Group told IPS. "They did the same at other offices. We will
keep doing so until our demands are met the resignation of the police chief."
The Awakening Groups, also referred to as Concerned Local Citizens by the U.S.
military, were formed to battle al-Qaeda. Members are paid $300 a month by occupation
forces and now number over 80,000 across Iraq. The groups form a counterweight
to the government security apparatus, which has long been known to be composed
primarily of Shia militiamen.
Residents of Baquba are worried over the fallout, and the incident has already
"The crisis began when two women were arrested and raped at a police checkpoint
near their hometown," resident Abu Muhaned told IPS. "As a reaction
to this, people of Tahreer district [1 mile from Baquba], which is a stronghold
of the [Sunni] Islamic party, attacked some Shia families."
Sectarian tensions, already high between the Awakening Groups, which are 82
percent Sunni, and Shia government forces, escalated after the incident.
"Sounds of firing were heard, and people of Baquba felt that the streets
may be overrun by militants again," Muhaned said. "The situation will
get worse, and clashes may happen if the government does not behave wisely."
Adding to the crisis is the bombing of an office of one of the members of the
Islamic party, Hussein al-Zubaidi, a member of the Diyala province governing
council who is responsible for security. Local sources told IPS that Zubaidi
was injured and two U.S. soldiers were killed in the attack, but the deaths
have not been confirmed by the U.S. military.
The Islamic Party accused Qureyshi of leaving Zubaidi without protection. Some
members of the party told IPS there were sharp verbal exchanges later at a meeting
of the governing council, leading almost to blows.
The conflicts have arisen in a situation where Sunnis say most jobs in the
province go to Shias.
"Sunni ex-officers are not allowed to return to their jobs [since the
occupation], while all the Shia have their own jobs back," a member of
the Diyala Awakening Council, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told IPS.
"The idea behind this procedure is that once all the officers are Shia,
the Shias will control the city."
Before the recent incident involving the two women, two Sunni men were kidnapped
at a police checkpoint.
"They were released, but immediately after they were kidnapped near the
emergency police office," local trader Abu Ibrahim told IPS. "No one
can kidnap people there unless he is from the police. These two men were later
found killed in the street."
People have begun to show their resentment over the sectarian behavior of the
police, and have accused the government of destabilizing the city. The conflict
is taking various forms. A leader of the local Awakening Council, also speaking
on the condition of anonymity, told IPS that members of the Awakening Groups
were not being allowed into government jobs.
"Qureyshi hired thousands of Shias in the police force, even those above
the age limit ," he said. "This is because they are Shia. Now,
every person aged 16-50 years in Khirnabat [Qureyshi's home town] is a policeman."