Iraqi and U.S. forces have arrested three leading members of a Sunni militia on suspicion of carrying out attacks — including downing an American military helicopter — before they joined sides with U.S.-led forces to fight the insurgency, Iraqi officials said Sunday.
The arrests north of Baghdad put to test pledges by Iraq's Shiite-led government to move ahead with Sunni reconciliation and offer security posts to members of the so-called Awakening Councils, who turned against al-Qaida and other insurgents in recent years in one of the pivotal alliances of the war.
Sunni leaders have protested the slow pace of government outreach. Some Awakening Council units, meanwhile, have threatened to end patrols and leave checkpoints because promised government payments have fallen behind.
More vulnerable to attacks
Any step back by the tribal Sunni militias could leave Baghdad and other areas more vulnerable to attacks from insurgents, who have sharply stepped up bombings in the past month.
The three Awakening Council leaders detained Saturday include Mullah Nadhum al-Jubouri, a prominent tribal militia figure in the area around Duluiyah, about 45 miles (75 kilometers) north of Baghdad. His two brothers also were taken into custody in the U.S.-Iraqi raid, said Iraqi officials.
The three are accused of carrying out attacks in 2005 and 2006, including downing a U.S. helicopter and targeting a police station near Duluiyah, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to release the details of the case.
Some Awakening Council members were active in the insurgency or sympathizers before becoming disenchanted with al-Qaida's attacks on civilians and reliance on non-Iraqi leaders.
There were no immediate signs of a serious Sunni backlash to the arrests, but violence has flared recently after similar raids.
Amnesty law doesn't cover all offenses
The arrest of an Awakening Council leader in Baghdad touched off two days of fighting with U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces in late March, killing at least four people. The arrested leader, Adel al-Mashhadani, was wanted under a December 2008 warrant accusing him of charges that include roadside bombings and links to al-Qaida in Iraq.
An amnesty law adopted last year allows officials to clear the slate the some past offenses, but does not cover allegations such as terrorism, kidnapping and rape.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking on CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS," said Washington strongly favors efforts at political compromises between Shiites and Sunnis.
"Regardless of what he says, Prime Minister (Nouri) al-Maliki also is reaching out to elements of the Sunni community as potential political allies," said Gates, "so the key for us is the Iraqis themselves, working these differences out and their problems in a political way."