BAGHDAD — Ten days after arresting him in the middle of the night, the Iraqi government Thursday freed a prominent Sunni Muslim paramilitary leader and dropped all charges against him.
While freeing Raad Ali, the Shiite-led government continued to hold another Sunni leader, whose arrest Saturday triggered an uprising that left at least 17 people wounded, and it's arrested a number of other Sunni paramilitary leaders and members this week.
The turmoil is fueling fears that rising tensions between Sunnis and Shiites and between Sunni Arabs and Kurds could trigger a new round of violence and even disrupt the Obama administration's plans to draw down American forces in Iraq.
Ali, the head of the Sons of Iraq in the Ghazaliyah neighborhood in northwest Baghdad, returned home to a rain of celebratory shooting by neighbors and supporters. He told McClatchy that he'd been charged with seven crimes, including kidnapping a man who'd already accused someone else of the crime, planting roadside bombs, displacing Shiite families and killing two police officers, one of whom had been his own follower.
He said that all of the charges were bogus. He was treated well while in prison and was able to plead his case before a judge Wednesday, he said.
"I know what is truth and what is a lie," Ali quoted the judge as telling him. "You are innocent. I need you to return to your area and protect the people again."
The Shiite-led government was never enthusiastic about the U.S. policy of putting 100,000 Sunni former "bad guys" on the payroll, and it began taking control of the Sons of Iraq in October. The government promised to pay the paramilitaries and absorb them into the security forces, but it began arresting them last year, and now the Sunni militias are weakened and slowly breaking apart.
In Baghdad's Sunni Ameriyah neighborhood, about 50 men were detained Tuesday, most of them members of the Sons of Iraq.
Ali's arrest came days before another paramilitary leader, Adel Mashhadani, was detained Saturday in Baghdad's Fadhil neighborhood, sparking a two-day uprising by his men. U.S. soldiers and Iraqi Security Forces suppressed the rebellion, detained dozens of Mashhadani's men and seized their weapons.
While Mashhadani's story captured the attention of the nation, and U.S. generals spoke about him, Ali, a U.S. ally, wasn't mentioned.
The U.S. military referred all questions to the Iraqi government. The Iraqi government said it wasn't targeting the Sons of Iraq leaders but enforcing legal warrants.
"Sahwa (Awakening) members were detained because of their actions, not their affiliations," said Mohammed Salman, the head of the reconciliation committee that oversees the Sons of Iraq and reports to U.S.-backed Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.
He said he had no idea why Ali was detained, but said he called security officials to make sure he was treated well.
Speaking as his three children giggled in the background, Ali recounted the day of his arrest. More than eight Humvees drove up to his door, and he knew they'd come for him. His wife woke him up, and he walked outside.
Outside, an Iraqi general, flanked by two officers and some 50 soldiers, told him they needed his help, he recalled.
"You have a warrant for my arrest?" Ali asked.
"No, don't say that. You are our friend," the general replied.
Ali got into the Humvee and was blindfolded.