Unrest in Iraq’s Diyala province

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Persistent violence in volatile Diyala province prompted security forces to impose a daylong vehicle ban Friday in the provincial capital, Baqubah, as frictions grew over a U.S.-backed program to recruit Sunnis to fight the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Hundreds of protesters also took to the streets in two other Diyala towns, Muqdadiya and Buhriz, alleging that U.S. forces had detained at least two members of the local Awakening Council, the U.S.-financed citizen security groups, local police officials said.

The protests underscore the U.S. military’s tenuous position: Many of the volunteer fighters are former Sunni insurgents who joined forces with the Americans for $10 a day and the promise of a job in the security forces. Although the effort has been credited with a significant reduction in violence in the region, Shiite leaders are suspicious of the effort, and some military officials have said that the program’s success may be difficult to sustain.

Brig. Gen. Mohammed Abid Bresem, police chief of Muqdadiya, said two Awakening Council members were among seven people stopped on the road to Baghdad. The U.S. military, however, could neither confirm nor deny that it had detained the men, but said it was trying to determine whether “they were arrested, where it took place and who did the arresting.”

Even so, protesters said they planned to demonstrate again today, and some volunteers have threatened to pull out of the Awakening Council.

Khalid Khalidi, a street commander of one of the local citizens groups, the Salahuddin Brigade, said members of the Awakening Council had issued an ultimatum that if the men were not released, they would “cease from further operations targeting Al Qaeda in Iraq, and maybe even withdraw from positions that they are currently holding.”

“God knows what would happen if the people’s demands are not met,” Khalidi said.

In Muqdadiya, an ethnically and religiously mixed town that was once a stronghold of Al Qaeda in Iraq, residents Friday credited the Awakening Council for improvements in security there. Many flowed in and out of mosques for Friday prayers, and flags of Shiite returnees hung from houses and light poles.

At a fabric store not far from the site of a recent suicide bombing, owner Mohammed Hassen said, “Before, no one came out. All the shops were closed. But because of the Awakening and the Americans, security is good now.”

In Baqubah, residents also praised the groups but expressed fear that the councils may be fracturing.

The U.S. military has formed partnerships with criminals who once aided Al Qaeda in Iraq, said Yousif Bilal.

“I think in the coming days, they might represent a threat,” he said. “These are new militias under legal cover.”

The Shiite-led central government has repeatedly expressed fear that the newly armed Sunnis will target Shiites once U.S. forces leave.

A Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army, also was credited with helping reduce the violence last year. In Baghdad’s Shiite district of Sadr City, a stronghold of the militia, leading cleric Sheik Jassim Muttairi on Friday praised the Mahdi Army for holding to a cease-fire that its leader, cleric Muqtada Sadr, declared last year during the U.S. troop buildup.

And at a mosque in the southern city of Kufa, Sheik Abdul-Hadi Muhammadawi, a leader in Sadr’s movement, said, “We introduced security and the peace plan in the provinces, especially those who witnessed conflicts, with the participation of Sadr leaders.

“We believe this is the best way to solve our problems; it’s also a good opportunity for all to reach security.”

In Baghdad, two bombings targeting U.S. patrols injured at least three civilians.

The U.S. military reported that troops killed two suspected insurgents north of Muqdadiya and detained 12 suspects during operations targeting Al Qaeda in Iraq.

And in Amarah, 190 miles southeast of Baghdad, a tanker filled with petroleum exploded at a checkpoint, killing four people, including at least one police officer, police said. Terrorism was not believed to be the cause.

Times staff writers Alexandra Zavis and Said Rifai and correspondents in Baghdad, Amarah and Diyala contributed to this report.