BAGHDAD, Iraq -- U.S.-allied fighters in a province south of Baghdad have quit working with American troops after two incidents in which U.S. soldiers killed militia members _ the second province where citizen militias have stopped cooperation with the United States.
Citizen brigades in the province of Babil quit work after three members were killed by U.S. forces Friday, a local police spokesman said Saturday.
Another high-profile fatal incident occurred in the same province a little over two weeks ago. Nationwide in that time span, 19 citizen militia members have been killed and 12 wounded by U.S. forces, said the police spokesman, Capt. Muthanna Ahmed.
The action in Babil province follows a strike by citizen brigades members in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, that has gone on for more than a week. The citizen militias allege the local police chief leads a death squad and seek his removal, among other demands.
Also this past week, a leader in another powerful citizens militia warned that U.S. and Shiite-dominated Iraq forces should no longer interfere in its work, suggesting coordinated efforts against insurgents might be coming to an end.
A U.S. military spokesman on Saturday downplayed the recent events and said they have little impact on the more than 83,000-member largely Sunni Muslim movement, known as the Awakening Movement.
Maj. Brad Leighton called the recent events "unfortunate accidents" but said there wasn't any trend or underlying issue to connect the incidents.
The Awakening Movement began in late 2006 in Anbar province when former Sunni Muslim insurgents and those who assisted them turned on al Qaida and the rest of the insurgent movement and agreed to ally with U.S. and Iraqi forces. The citizens brigades members, also known as Sawha and recently renamed Sons of Iraq by the U.S. military, are paid about $10 per day.
Along with a six-month freeze in activities of the Mahdi Army militia ordered by Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and the increased surge in U.S. troops, the Awakening Movement is seen as one of the key reasons for a reduction of violence in Iraq.
Recent incidents, however, have strained relations with some of these groups.
On Saturday, the citizens militia in Babil announced it was halting its work after back-to-back incidents this week. On late Wednesday and early Thursday, U.S. forces seeking a high-ranking al Qaeda leader south of Zab, about 80 kilometers west of Kirkuk, opened fire on several men they believed were terrorists. The four men killed were citizen militia members, according to Iraqi police. Two women in a nearby house were also killed, either by a rocket-propelled grenade or by an assault helicopter.
On Friday in Babil, U.S. forces opened fire on a checkpoint manned by three citizen militia members, killing them.
Leighton said in a movement as large as the awakening, there are going to be some problems.
"There have been some errors. It's something we regret," he said. "They're not a reflection on the whole movement."
Also Saturday in Baghdad, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guerres, said the agency's presence in Iraq will be boosted and its new representative will move to Baghdad from Amman. He also proposed that an assessment be done to see what conditions must exist in Iraq for a sustainable refugee return.
Currently there are more than 2 million Iraqi refugees in neighboring countries and at least 2 million displaced internally.
Also Saturday, the head of the Baghdad security operations, Lt. Gen. Aboud Qanbar, told reporters that violence had dropped in the capital by 80 percent since the start of Operation Imposing Law, an Iraqi plan to re-establish security in Baghdad that began about a year ago, the same time the U.S. troop surge started. The corpses found in the streets that in 2006 were numbering on average 43 a day had dropped to about four a day, he said.
He added that the concrete blast walls that surround markets, neighborhoods and roads across Baghdad would be taken down in the coming months.
The U.S. military has said attacks in Baghdad had dropped by 60 percent since June.
Lannen writes for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader. Baghdad Bureau Chief Leila Fadel and special correspondents Hassen Jubouri in Tikrit and Qassim Zein in Najaf contributed to this report.
McClatchy Newspapers 2008