BAGHDAD — Sunni militants staged a violent uprising in central Baghdad Saturday after Iraqi forces detained a leader of the Sons of Iraq, a mostly Sunni paramilitary force that until recently had received salaries from the United States and is now on the Iraqi government payroll.
Sixteen people were injured in the battle in the once volatile Fadhl neighborhood, and five Iraqi soldiers were missing - snatched Saturday night by members of the Sons of Iraq, a security official said.
The arrest of Adel Mashhadani, who leads the force in Fadhl, and his assistant, heightened fears among Sunnis that the Iraqi government plans to divide and disband the movements now that its taken control of all but a few thousand of the 94,000 members across the country.
The Iraqi government said Mashhadani was arrested for long-standing allegations of criminal acts.
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"He was detained upon the strength of several arrest warrants against him in connection to killing and kidnappings," said Abdel Kareem Khalaf, the spokesman for the Ministry of Interior. "The killings happened a while ago but if a person killed your father a while ago wouldn't you come forward to make a complaint now that the security situation is calm?"
The U.S. military said Mashhadani's arrest was based on a legitimate warrant.
"He was not arrested for his role as a Sons of Iraq leader, nor are any Sons of Iraq being targeted," said Col. Bill Buckner a spokesman for U.S. military ground forces in Iraq. "We remain thankful for the work of honest Sons of Iraq, who recognize that it is important for all Iraqis to obey the law."
The Sons of Iraq in Baghdad were on the U.S. military payroll until late last year, tasked to secure their neighborhoods from insurgents fighting for Al Qaida in Iraq. Now they are under Iraqi control in the capital and most of Iraq.
But Saturday, members of the paramilitary turned their fury on the Americans as well as the Shiite-led government. U.S. military advisors accompanied the Iraqi forces when they picked up Mashhadani along with Salman Qaddouri, a deputy.
"They sold him," said Khaled Jamal Qaisi, Mashhadani's deputy, referring to the U.S. military.
"The Americans are vile people and they betrayed our trust," Qaisi said. "We are the ones who fought al Qaida. They want things to return as they used to be? If they don't release Adel al Mashhadani today, you will all be prisoners in your homes."
On Friday Mashhadani had sat inside a small prayer area in his neighborhood. Outside, the sides of buildings appeared as if they'd been gnawed at by intense gunfire. The front of the structures was scarred by bullet holes, and garbage was strewn on the streets. But on Friday it was calm, as it has been for months.
He said he was proud of what he accomplished in the neighborhood, once a bastion for the Sunni insurgency, and a frequent target of Shiite militia killings. He said he had led the battle that saved his neighborhood and credited the Americans, whom he once fought, for backing him.
A former member of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard, Mashhadani did not conceal his past but admitted he had fought American forces and anyone else he believed was threatening to his neighborhood.
Mashhadani said he had decided to work with the Americans In late 2007, when he was sure that there was a conspiracy to push the Sunni residents out of his neighborhood. Many Sunni Iraqis were pushed out of Baghdad during the sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007.
"I would've even put my hands with Bush to save my neighborhood," he said. He and his men, with U.S. approval, had killed many people believed to be Al Qaida to achieve security, and their relatives are now filing complaints against them, he said. But he added he thought the battle he had fought and the security he brought would erase his past and give him and his nation a fresh start.
The government in his mind was still untrustworthy and he controlled the neighborhood — going as far as forbidding strangers to the neighborhood to buy property inside.
"The Americans stood an honorable stand," he said, his face shaded by the rim of a baseball cap and his sunglasses perched on the cap. Prior to his change of heart the U.S. military listed him as a wanted man, he said. "I have a warrant out for my arrest. The only thing that stands in the government's way is the Americans and when they go, I will be in jail."
One day later, Iraqi security forces arrested him as U.S. advisors looked on.
The U.S. military said in the last 12 months there have been about 164 detentions by the Iraqi government. But members of the Sons of Iraq believe the number is much higher. Only about 5,000 of the about 94,000 men were absorbed into the police force in the last year and only some 500 into the Iraqi Army -- well below the 20 percent that are supposed to be absorbed into the security forces. The other 80 percent will go to ministry jobs by the end of the year, according to the U.S. military.
(Special Correspondents Laith Hammoudi and Sahar Issa contributed to this report.)
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