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50 killed in Iraq attacks aimed at anti-Al Qaeda fighters

The violence west of Baghdad draws attention to the plight of the Awakening, a band of fighters widely credited with helping turn the tide against Al Qaeda in Iraq militants.

July 19, 2010|By Ned Parker and Usama Redha, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Baghdad — At least 50 people were killed Sunday in attacks west of Baghdad, including a double suicide bombing against Sunni Arab paramilitary members waiting to receive their paychecks outside a military base.

The choice of victims, most of whom switched sides to take part in the U.S.-backed Awakening movement that took a stand against the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq, highlighted Iraq's precarious security situation as the country nears its fifth month with caretaker leadership.

The two bombers blew themselves up as Awakening movement fighters approached to question the pair, who were standing outside the Iraqi army base in Radwaniya, witnesses and security officials said. At least 42 people were killed in the attack southwest of Baghdad that officials said was carried out by two mentally disabled men.

Farther west, Awakening members were assaulted by a gunman who opened fire on their headquarters in the town of Qaim near the Syrian border. After being wounded, the gunman detonated explosives strapped to his body, killing four of the Awakening members, security officials said.

Three Iraqi soldiers and a civilian were also killed Sunday near the Radwaniya attack as they searched a house that had been rigged with explosives.

The violence drew attention to the plight of the Awakening movement, which was widely credited with helping turn the tide against Al Qaeda in Iraq. As U.S. forces have drawn down and handed over security responsibilities to the Iraqi government, many Awakening leaders have been arrested for crimes they are accused of having committed when they were insurgents.

Others have been assassinated. Last week, an Awakening leader was brutally slain along with his wife and children in his home south of Baghdad.

As Awakening members increasingly fear for their lives, the Iraqi government has also consistently struggled to pay them their salaries on time. The men waiting for their wages Sunday had not been paid in five months, they said. Others have been transferred to low-level jobs in civil ministries.

The treatment has caused many to quit the Awakening or their new civilian jobs. The drop in the number of such fighters has left a gap in the regions around Baghdad, once footholds for Al Qaeda in Iraq, where the Awakening had helped defeat the radical Islamists.

The Sunni fighters now describe themselves as caught between radicals seeking revenge and a suspicious army that is just as likely to arrest them as pay them.

"The sons of the Awakening are paying with their blood," Sheik Ali Hatem Sulaiman, a senior tribal leader associated with the movement, said on Al Arabiya satellite TV. "We haven't seen the government, politicians or the Americans finding a solution to this problem."

The attacks also raised concerns that armed groups are generally exploiting the failure to form a government more than four months after national elections and as the U.S. military prepares to reduce its force size to 50,000 by the end of August.

Even before the inconclusive vote, assassinations had become prevalent, mainly around Baghdad. At least 350 people have been killed since March by bombs planted on their cars, according to police.

Last week, a judge on the country's highest appeals court was blown up in his car, while the brother of a senior Awakening leader was killed by a bomb Saturday and a brigadier general in the prime minister's office was wounded by gunmen on motorcycles.

In private, some government officials have expressed concern for their own safety, describing the current period as one where anything could happen. Although large-scale bombings have taken place at a less furious pace than two years ago, the country is continuing to witness a steady campaign of assassinations, punctuated by the occasional mass-casualty suicide attack.

One survivor of the attacks in Radwaniya, speaking from his hospital bed, said he had been waiting in line outside the army base when the blast knocked him to the ground. He described how life had become more dangerous for members of the Awakening, also known as Sahwa.

"Recently, I received many threatening letters to quit my job as Sahwa. I was threatened with death but I continue my work," he said, asking not to be identified by name.

Relatives of the victims waited to put their dead into pickup trucks in nearby Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad. "This is the government's fault," said one, criticizing the Shiite-led government's treatment of the Sunni paramilitary members.

Some Iraqi politicians and analysts warn that more unrest could be ignited by the governmental stalemate between Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and his secular rival, Iyad Allawi, whose bloc won two more parliamentary seats than Maliki's in the elections. Both men appear to be too controversial to garner the necessary votes in parliament to head the government, but no clear alternative has emerged.

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