Sunni militiamen in central Baghdad surrendered their arms under threat of heavy reprisals after two days of intense clashes with US-backed Iraqi forces.The Awakening (Sahwa) militia was trained by the US army to fight al Qaeda.
AFP - Anti-Qaeda Sunni fighters walk slowly towards Iraqi troops holding aloft their Kalashnikov rifles in a sign of surrender as a deadline looms to give up their arms of face reprisals.
Tension is still running high on Sunday in the impoverished central Baghdad neighbourhood of Fadel, a day after heavy clashes between US-backed Iraqi forces and members of the Sahwa militia killed two civilians and wounded 15 people.
The Iraqi army has blocked access to Fadel, a former Al-Qaeda bastion and Sunni heartland of insurgency that was cleared of the jihadists by the same gunmen who are now reluctantly surrendering their weapons.
US choppers hover overhead while American armoured vehicles crawl through the narrow streets, blaring a message in Arabic from loudspeakers ordering residents to give up their arms by noon.
"Anyone who still holds weapons after this deadline will be considered a terrorist," the message says.
An Iraqi commander says a house-to-house operation will begin late afternoon.
"We are waiting for orders and then we will search the houses," he says.
Qussay, 32, is among dozens of Sahwa militiamen who made sure he beat the deadline.
"I surrendered my weapons because I did not want the Americans to bomb my house and my neighbourhood. There are women and children here," says Qussay, declining to reveal his family name.
"The Sahwas have been liquidated and Al-Qaeda will return and the attacks will return with them. And then, who will protect the neighbourhood," he tells AFP after handing in a Kalashnikov.
"This is how the Americans thank us after all we did to throw out Al-Qaeda," he adds.
Some residents surround Qussay in sign of support.
"We can't trust the Americans. They come to drink our whisky, and then look at what they do," one of them says.
The Sahwa, the Arabic word for Awakening, are former insurgents also called the Sons of Iraq by the American military which helped the Iraqi army train and finance the militia to fight Al-Qaeda.
The streets of Fadel are miserable and grimy and the buildings are scarred with bullet holes from pitched battles in 2006, 2007 and 2008 between US forces and Sunni rebels and later between Sahwa and Al-Qaeda fighters.
On Sunday the streets are back in battle mode as dozens of armoured vehicles and troop carriers patrol the Sunni enclave in the heart of historic Baghdad.
Soldiers take cover from snipers holed up in buildings or crouched on rooftops, near shops shut soon after the fighting erupted on Saturday when Iraqi forces arrested local Sahwa leader Adel Mashhadani.
Baghdad military command spokesman Major General Qasim Atta says Mashhadani was arrested along with Sahwa member Salman Kadduri over allegations of murder and extortion.
"There are 80 civil suits against him for murder and extortion," he says.
Iraqi and US troop reinforcements were rushed to Fadel from the first hours of Sunday, to contain the worst fighting in the centre of Baghdad in more than a year.
Intermittent automatic weapons fire crackles as US Humvees and armoured vehicles roll through the neighbourhood.
Six Sahwa militiamen who have just surrendered their weapons are escorted by US soldiers from the 82nd airborne division led by their commander, Lieutenant-Colonel David Buckingham.
The fighters look crestfallen.
"We did not arrest them. They freely gave back their weapons," says Buckingham.
"Almost half of them, about 50 people, have already given their weapons," he says.
An Iraqi military intelligence officer holds lists of names of Sahwa militiamen, which he checks each time someone enters or exits from Fadel. The names of a dozen women are included on the lists.
A handcuffed man, his T-shirt pulled over his head, kneels next to a soldier. "He is suspected of leading a group of insurgents," the soldier says of the suspect.
Some residents, clutching personal belongings, leave Fadel in haste.
"It is too dangerous so I am going to stay with relatives in Nasiriyah (southern Iraq)," says Anmar Mahmoud, a university student.
"I'll be back when it's over," says the 22-year-old chemistry major.
Date created : 2009-03-29