BAGHDAD - A mutiny in the ranks of a key Iraqi militia credited with helping US forces to defeat al-Qaeda in the region is threatening to plunge the country back into sectarian violence.
A rebellion by some members of the Awakening Councils, a Sunni Arab paramilitary force of more than 90,000 men, could unravel the enormous improvements in security since 2007. If left unchecked, it threatens to push the country back to the brink of civil war, pitting Sunnis against Shias, who dominate the Government.
In the latest violence, a rare US airstrike last night attacked a group of Awakening Council men north of Baghdad who were suspected of planting a roadside bomb. One person was killed and two were wounded and arrested. A fourth man was not found.
The attack came days after some of the worst fighting in Baghdad for two years when Awakening guards clashed with the Iraqi Army after their leader was arrested on criminal and terrorism charges. Iraqi soldiers moved into the Fadhil district last Sunday and ordered fighters to surrender their weapons.
The crackdown alarmed other Awakening units who fear they are being unfairly singled out by the Government for sectarian reasons. Scores of Awakening guards, many of whom fought as insurgents before switching sides, have been arrested in the past fortnight, increasing suspicions of a witch-hunt.
Nouri al-Maliki, the Shia Prime Minister, said that the operation in Fadhil followed months of investigation. "The issue was not for political or media purposes," he said in a television interview.
The offensive sent a message "to those who are following the same path taken by the gang in Fadhil that their fate will be the same," he said.
The renewed violence will be greeted with alarm by the US military, which is cutting its forces in Iraq thanks to the reduction in violence. The Awakening Councils were a key part of the strategy developed by General David Petraeus, whose "surge" of US forces two years ago was credited with pulling Iraq out of its descent into civil war and defeating al-Qaeda.
One leader in the restive province of Diyala said that the Government did not trust the Awakening movement because it was made up of Sunni Arabs. "We fought al-Qaeda, so how could it be that my guys are terrorists?" said the man, who goes by the nickname of Abu Iraq (father of Iraq). "I do not trust my Government."
Awakening Councils were conceived in 2006 following talks between US and British Special Forces and other military officials with Sunni Arab tribal leaders in Anbar province - then the heart of a resistance that was tearing Iraq apart.
The Sheikhs had either supported or tacitly approved of the insurgency, but had been repulsed by the indiscriminate killings by groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq. They agreed to recruit thousands of fighters to turn against the extremists in return for a monthly salary from the US military.
The initiative caught on and spread across the country. Insurgents who once received cash for planting bombs against the coalition forces took up guns under the payroll of US officers to protect their neighbourhoods in one of the most significant turning points of the war.
Many members of the Government, however, opposed the creation of the largely Sunni armed force outside the police and army. They remain concerned that the Awakening Councils are infiltrated by al-Qaeda and other militant groups.
Under a long-term plan drawn up by the US military and agreed by Iraqi leaders, responsibility for the Awakening Councils was gradually handed over to the Iraqi authorities. A fifth of the men were supposed to be absorbed into the Iraqi security forces, with the rest given help to find civilian jobs.
The Government took responsibility for the last of the Awakening Councils on Thursday, but little progress has been made in recruiting any of the guards, who man checkpoints in once violent neighbourhoods in Baghdad and other provinces.
Officials insist they are committed to working with the guards but budget shortfalls this year because of a drop in the price of oil, Iraq's main resource, are restricting the plans. The explanations offer slim comfort.
Abu Iraq, who commands about 1,000 men, said almost 500 had been laid off without the prospect of further employment and there was no sign that the 530 still with jobs would be accepted into the security forces soon.
"The danger is that the violence starts again in our neighbourhood. There are many guys with no jobs," he said. "This is a big, big disappointment." Making matters worse, a lot of the Awakening Councils complain that they have not received a salary for up to three months. Some guards are refusing to turn up for work and leaders warn that the status-quo cannot continue for much longer. They say they will stay at their posts without pay, but many of their men will quit.
Abu Safar, who leads a band of 100 Awakening guards in the Baghdad neighbourhood of Adhamiya, once an al-Qaeda stronghold, said a quarter of his force was on strike because of the lack of wages.
Asked what would happen if his men no longer manned checkpoints in the area, which has slowly returned to life over the past year, he said: "It would be like before. We will be back to square one."
An Iraqi Army spokesman said salaries would start to be paid again from Monday, but the Awakening guards are skeptical. "Just like everyone else, I will have to wait and see if that happens," said Abu Safar.