Iraqi police arrested the local leader of a government-backed Sunni Muslim militia for planning the deadly bombings on Shiite pilgrims this week, Iraqi officials said today.
If the Awakening Council leader is found guilty of the charges, it would affirm widespread government doubts about integrating the Sunni fighters into the nation's security forces — despite their alliance with the US against al-Qa'ida. It could also signal that the militia's frustration about being sidelined by Iraq's Shiite-dominated government may have finally reached a boiling point.
The arrest was announced as anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr headed back to Iran, according to two senior aides, after a brief two-week visit breaking nearly four years of self-exile.
The populist firebrand Shiite cleric, who leads a powerful political movement, left Iraq this morning, according to the two aides. One of the officials said al-Sadr was expected back soon.
Both senior aides spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
Security forces were tipped off about the Awakening Council chief in Hillah just hours after the Thursday blasts that killed 56 outside the holy city of Karbala, said Maj. Gen. Numan Dakhil, commander of Iraq's SWAT teams. The blasts struck crowds of pilgrims who were headed to the shrines for rituals marking the 7th century death of the Imam Hussein, who is buried there.
Dakhil said the militia leader and an assistant were arrested early Friday in Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, which US and Iraqi security officials believe has become a haven for insurgents. Both men are accused of links to the Islamic Army in Iraq, a nationalist insurgent group of mostly Sunnis, many former soldiers.
Also known as Sahwa or Sons of Iraq, the Awakening Councils are made up of Sunni fighters who sided with US forces against al-Qa'ida in a crucial turning point of the war. But many Shiite officials are deeply suspicious of their role during Iraq's darkest days of sectarian violence.
For their part, the Awakening Councils have been frustrated with the government for years, saying they risked their lives to battle al-Qa'ida, only to be shut out of the nation's security forces and left at the mercy of vengeful extremists.
A broad plan to absorb the Awakening Councils into security forces or other government jobs, and to give them benefits, has been stalled by Iraqi leaders who say they don't have the money to hire the estimated 51,900 fighters.
Thursday's triple suicide bombings on the pilgrims outraged Shiite clerics who accused security forces of continually failing to outwit the insurgents and protect the Iraqi people. It also prompted a Sadrist lawmaker to renew offers to reassemble al-Sadr's feared militia that is alleged to have engaged in rampant revenge killings of Sunnis for years.
In his only public speech during his two weeks in Iraq, al-Sadr urged his followers to renounce sectarian violence even as he whipped up the crowd of about 20,000 into an anti-American frenzy.
Al-Sadr's surprise return to Iraq was part of his campaign to boost his credibility in the nation's political and religious circles after nearly four years in voluntary exile in Iran. His political wing holds 40 seats in parliament, and its support is steadily growing.