BAGHDAD — The U.S. military sought to reassure its Sunni allies Monday that it would support them despite fears that the Shiite-led government plans a purge of their ranks after a weekend crackdown in Baghdad.
A major rift between the Shiite government and the Sunni groups could fuel sectarian tensions and threaten security as the Americans begin withdrawing their forces this year.
Iraqi authorities have denied plans to disband Sunni paramilitary groups, known as Awakening Councils or Sons of Iraq, which broke with al-Qaida in Iraq and joined forces with the Americans to help combat the insurgents.
But Sunni suspicions were heightened when police arrested the leader of a Sunni group in central Baghdad's Fadhil district Saturday and, after two days of sporadic fighting, disarmed his followers.
The leader of Sunni paramilitaries in Diyala province, a lawless area at the northeastern gates of the capital, threatened Monday to stop security cooperation with U.S. and Iraqi forces if the jailed leader is not freed.
Sunni paramilitary leaders in other parts of the country said they fear the government is bent on suppressing their movement now that the U.S. is committed to withdrawing all its troops by the end of 2011.
American commanders think the Awakening Councils were the key to turning the tide against Sunni insurgents in 2007. There have been fears that some fighters may return to the insurgency if they feel threatened by the government.
U.S. spokesman Maj. Gen. David Perkins told reporters Monday that U.S. officials were contacting senior Sunni leaders to "reassure the Sunni community" that the American and Iraqi governments have "every intent to live up to the promises" made to the Sunni groups.
He said the Awakening Council leader, Adel al-Mashhadani, was arrested under a legal warrant alleging he was involved in extortion, planting roadside bombs, robbery and other crimes. He said most people in Fadhil were glad to see him in custody.
But some Awakening Council leaders said al-Mashhadani's arrest appeared to be part of a campaign of harassment by the Shiite government, which never fully trusted the paramilitaries because they include many former insurgents.
"I wonder why these accusations against Adel Al-Mashhadani were raised at this time when they depended on him before," said Sabbar al-Mashhadani, leader of a north Baghdad Awakening group and no relation to the leader in Fadhil.
"I think there are other motives by the same sides that put up obstacles" against the councils, he said -- a veiled reference to Shiite religious parties that have never fully trusted the Sunni groups.