BAGHDAD — The leader of Iraq's most powerful Shiite Muslim political party warned Friday that the security organizations that American officials credit with helping to cut violence in Iraq must be brought under control.
Abdulaziz al Hakim, the head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, became the latest Iraqi leader to raise concerns that the U.S.-financed groups, which are predominantly Sunni Muslim and known as awakening councils or "concerned local citizens," could become a potent army capable of challenging the U.S.-backed Shiite-dominated central government.
"We emphasize that it's important that these awakening councils become an aid and an arm to the Iraqi government in its pursuit of criminals and terrorists and not become a substitute for it," Hakim said in a speech that marked the Eid al Adha festival of sacrifice commemorating the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.
The groups have become a controversial aspect of the U.S. military's counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq. More than 75,000 people, 80 percent of them Sunni, have signed up for the groups under a U.S.-sponsored program that pays Iraqis $300 each to patrol their neighborhoods.
The groups began in Anbar province, a predominantly Sunni area, where they're credited with curbing al Qaida in Iraq, but it was the U.S. push to form similar groups in mixed Sunni-Shiite areas of Baghdad and Diyala province, as well as in mostly Shiite southern Iraq, that has sparked the anger of Shiite officials.
Recently, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite, has directed that no councils be formed in the predominantly Shiite areas of southern Iraq, where violence is caused primarily by rivalries between the Mahdi Army militia loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr and the Supreme Council's Badr Organization militia.
In recent weeks, the government has taken steps to quash any possible formation of awakening councils.
On Dec. 7, police in Najaf, Shiite Islam's holiest city, arrested Adnan al Hamaidi, the general secretary of the Independent Iraqi Politicians, after he told Najaf Gov. Assaad Abu Galal, a member of the Supreme Council, that he planned to organize an awakening council. Ahmed Duaibel, a spokesman for the governor, said Hamaidi was arrested because awakening councils are banned in Najaf and southern areas.
In Diwaniyah, 11 men who said they were members of a local awakening council were arrested earlier this week for setting up a checkpoint in the southern city, which is notorious for battles between the Mahdi Army and Iraqi security forces, many of whose members also belong to the Badr Organization.
Awakening councils "are connected to facing al Qaida," said Sheik Humam Hammoudi, a leading Supreme Council member. "Al Qaida is not in Najaf or Diwaniyah or Nasariyah," he said, naming three major cities in the Shiite south.
Hammoudi complained that the American offer to pay members of awakening councils was encouraging instability. He said that the Americans are risking Iraqi stability by expanding an idea that's better limited to Sunni areas.
"The American project for 70,000 members of the awakening councils will encourage other parts of Iraq to be unstable so they can get $300 a month," Hammoudi said. "This is a long-term danger."
So far, the only official U.S. payments in Iraq's south are going to 2,015 people in Diwaniyah, where the Badr Organization and the Mahdi Army are fighting for influence.
U.S. officials say that the effort to bring more Shiites into the awakening councils is in response to the Iraqi government's insistence that the groups be more balanced between Sunnis and Shiites. But the officials said it's hard to recruit Shiites because Shiite militias threaten those who try to join.
In Baghdad's Abu Dsheer neighborhood, a Shiite area in the mostly Sunni Dora district, one man reported that he tried to join the local security volunteers organization, primarily because $300 was double his current salary as a cleaner. But the Mahdi Army threatened to kill anyone who joined and burn down the local council's building. Fliers headlined "the final warning" were posted throughout the area.
One U.S. official declined to discuss the issue on the record to avoid antagonizing the Shiite-dominated government.
A senior U.S. military official who asked not to be named because he wasn't authorized to speak on the subject said the councils threaten both the Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization.
The officer said numerous tribal sheiks have approached him asking to form groups in the south to counteract the power of those Shiite militias that are attached to religious political parties.
"That would be frankly what these groups would be protecting the people from," the official said. "It will be a powerful movement. It also crosses another struggle and that's the struggle between the tribes and the religious groups."
Ali Hatem al Suleiman, a Sunni tribal sheik from Anbar who works closely with awakening councils in Baghdad, said the Shiite government is threatened because the councils are more secular than the religious parties that dominate the government.
"In the south it's different because they are dominated by the turbans," he said, referring to the clerics. "Bush is paying to have a new group established that is made up of nationalistic people. Why don't they take the garbage government and throw it away?"
Suleiman said that Iraq still needs to confront Shiite militias, which he said prey on civilians.
"Who will rid them of killers targeting displaced Shiites on the highway as they drive to the borders? Who will avenge the lives lost in bombings?" he asked. "The Sunni tribes avenged those lives, but what about the Shiite tribes? Who will avenge their dead? Will they?"