BAGHDAD - U.S.-backed Iraqi forces swept through a central Baghdad slum yesterday, disarming Sunnis from a government-allied paramilitary group to quell a two-day uprising launched to protest the arrest of their leader.
At least four people were killed and 21 wounded in the two days of fighting between government troops and the Awakening Council in Fadhil, a ramshackle warren of narrow, fetid streets on the east side of the Tigris River where al-Qaeda once held sway.
Members of the Fadhil council said yesterday that they had decided to give up the fight and hand over their weapons to spare the neighborhood, whose bullet-pocked buildings bore witness to intense combat there two years ago.
Most of the top council members fled the neighborhood as Iraqi troops searched house-to-house, according to residents who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared for their safety.
A few fighters were still holding out. An Iraqi patrol, accompanied by an Associated Press photo and video team, came under heavy fire, sending them ducking for cover as bullets nicked bits of mortar from the buildings lining the narrow alleyway.
The confrontation in Fadhil is potentially explosive if it leads to a split between the Shiite-led government and the Awakening Councils, made up of Sunnis who abandoned al-Qaeda and joined forces with the Americans to fight the insurgents.
Distrust runs deep between the government and the Awakening Councils, which the U.S. calls Sons of Iraq, because many of their members are ex-insurgents. There have been fears that some fighters may return to the insurgency if they feel threatened by the government.
That could undermine U.S. plans to remove all combat troops from Baghdad and other cities by the end of June and end the U.S. combat role in Iraq by September 2010.
Members of the councils maintain that they are being unfairly singled out and targeted by the Shiite-dominated security forces because they are Sunnis. But none of the past arrests drew the kind of explosive reaction that followed Saturday's detention of Adel al-Mashhadani.
"In our view, all these arrests and assassinations . . . [are] part of Iran's plan to dominate Iraq," said Shogaa al-Aazami, commander of an Awakening Council in west Baghdad. "We think the arrests and the assassinations will continue."
Clashes broke out Saturday when Iraqi troops seized Mashhadani, accusing him of terrorist activity and leading an armed group loyal to Saddam Hussein's ousted party. Awakening Council fighters, who a few days earlier had been manning security checkpoints, opened fire on Iraqi troops, setting off gun battles that persisted into yesterday. U.S. soldiers rushed to support the Iraqis.
"Why does al-Mashhadani become a terrorist when before they used to consider him a hero?" asked a member of the Fadhil council, who gave his name only as Abu Abdullah. "We are not going to submit to any terms from the Americans or the Iraqi authorities, since we are afraid that they will stab us in the back as they did to our leader."
Col. Bill Buckner, a U.S. military spokesman, said Mashhadani was arrested under a December 2008 warrant charging him with seven offenses including extortion, roadside bombings against Iraqi forces, robbery, and ties to al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The government took control of the 90,000 Awakening Council members last October from the Americans.