An Iraqi army soldier loads weapons April 3 seized by Iraqi security forces during recent operations in the Sunni-dominated Fadhil neighborhood of Baghdad. Some in Iraq question how loyal Sunni Awakening Councils are to the national cause; the U.S. said it killed a Sunni militant and Sons of Iraq member April 2 while he was preparing a roadside bomb. (Khalid Mohammed / The Associated Press)
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BAGHDAD — A U.S. aircraft fired on suspected government-allied Sunni paramilitaries planting a bomb, killing one and wounding two, the U.S. said Friday — the latest sign of trouble in a program that has been a pillar of the U.S. strategy to stabilize Iraq.
A U.S. statement said the airstrike was launched Thursday night after four gunmen, allegedly members of the Sons of Iraq, were seen planting a roadside bomb near Taji, site of a large U.S. air base about 12 miles north of Baghdad.
Sons of Iraq, also known as Awakening Councils, are Sunnis who broke with the insurgents and now work with the army and police to provide security in their areas.
U.S. commanders credit the more than 90,000 Sons of Iraq with playing a major role in turning the tide against al-Qaida and other Sunni insurgents following the U.S. troop surge of 2007.
But the Shiite-led government is suspicious of the groups because they include many ex-insurgents. Shiite leaders also believe some of the members are infiltrators who are still working for the insurgents.
Last weekend, U.S.-backed Iraqi forces put down an uprising in central Baghdad by members of the local Awakening Council angry over the arrest of their commander on terrorism and criminal charges.
The U.S. statement said one of the gunmen was found dead at the scene of Thursday's attack and the two wounded were captured in a nearby house, the U.S. said. They were handed over to Iraqi police.
"While we value our Sons of Iraq brothers, these men had broken faith with their fellow Sons of Iraq, the Iraqi people and us," said Maj. Gen. Daniel Bolger, commander of U.S. forces in the Baghdad area.
The attack occurred in a rural area where several bombings had occurred in recent months, the U.S. statement said.
Taji residents reached by telephone said the Thursday incident followed a growing rift between the local Sunni paramilitaries and the mostly Shiite security forces.
The residents, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears of reprisals, said the security forces consider the Sunni council members disobedient, although they are supposed to take orders from Iraqi police and soldiers.
Council members, on the other hand, believe they never got full credit for pushing al-Qaida from the area and feel betrayed by the Americans, who raised the force but transferred it to Iraqi control last October.
Tension between the two sides rose in Taji after the crackdown on the Awakening Council group in the central Baghdad neighborhood of Fadhil, the residents said.
An Awakening Council leader in another Baghdad neighborhood, Dora, said Friday that Iraqi forces had arrested four members in the past few days because of alleged links to al-Qaida.
Police also picked up the head of the Awakening Council in Muqdadiyah, an insurgency flashpoint town 60 miles northeast of Baghdad, the local military command said Friday.
Mohammed al-Jibouri, head of the Dora group, said he suspected the arrests were based on false tips from al-Qaida sympathizers in revenge for the terror movement's setbacks in the tense neighborhood.
"At the beginning, we were fighting al-Qaida and we succeeded in imposing peace," he told The Associated Press. "Now, we are worried because we are now put between the two fires of al-Qaida and the U.S.-Iraqi forces. Everybody should be aware that the main beneficiary of this situation is al-Qaida."
In an interview Friday with government television, an Iraqi military spokesman urged the Awakening Councils to purge their ranks of "ban elements" and cut their ties to militant groups, including Saddam Hussein's banned Baath party.
Last October, the U.S. transferred control of the paramilitaries to the Iraqi government, which promised to take 20 percent of them into the army or police and pay the rest until they could be found civilian jobs.
But delays in pay and a series of arrests led to fears among some Awakening Council leaders that the Shiite-run government intended to sideline the groups as U.S. influence wanes.
Also Friday, the U.S. military announced that an American soldier died of "noncombat-related causes." The soldier, who died Friday, was assigned to the 3rd Sustainment Command, a logistics and supply organization. No further details were released.
A car bomb exploded Friday night in the Karradah district of Baghdad, killing two people and wounding five, police said.
Associated Press Writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad and Omar Sinan in Cairo, Egypt contributed to this report.