BAGHDAD (AFP) — A top Iraqi Sunni cleric called on Wednesday for the tens of thousands of Sunni Arab militants allied to US forces in the fight against Al-Qaeda to be integrated into the regular security forces.
Sheikh Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al-Samarraie, head of the Sunni endowment, told AFP that the fate of around 70,000 Sunni Arab men fighting against Al-Qaeda in Iraq militants must be decided by Baghdad soon.
"The fate of these 70,000 men is not defined and it must be decided soon," said Samarraie, whose organisation oversees the management of all Sunni shrines across Iraq.
"These fighters must be integrated into the police and army," he said.
Since last year Sunni Arabs, most of them former insurgents who fought US troops, have been forming "concerned local citizens" groups to fight Al-Qaeda militants and to guard their neighbourhoods.
These groups are now backed by the US military and the programme has seen success in some Sunni areas of Iraq, especially in the western Anbar province.
There dozens of Sunni tribal chiefs formed an Anbar Awakening Council last year and they have since managed to push Al-Qaeda fighters out of the province.
Similar councils have sprung up in other Sunni regions of Iraq since the Anbar experiment.
"These are honourable, courageous men, who want to protect their relatives and property from Al-Qaeda," Samarraie said.
"They are ending the bloodshed by even fighting the (Shiite) militias. They fight with their personal weapons."
Sunni Arab politicians and US commanders have regularly accused Iraq's Shiite militias of killing Sunnis in the country's sectarian warfare since the bombing of a Shiite shrine in February 2006.
Some US commanders have referred to these Sunni Arabs as "patriots" serving their country, despite fears that the forces may turn into militias embroiled in a civil war.
Samarraie said several government officials had assured him of their help for the young men to join the security forces but "certain politicians are opposing the idea."
"They are a force for self defence, to protect the neighbourhoods, cities and villages from the crimes of Al-Qaeda and other militias. Why should that be opposed?" he asked.
Samarraie, a moderate but influential Sunni leader, insisted that involving the tribes is the only way to ensure an end to Al-Qaeda's atrocities in Iraq.
"I took part in the first meeting which gave rise to the Anbar Awakening Council," he said.
"I have always defended the idea that the intervention of the tribes was the only way of bringing back safety. The tribes know Al-Qaeda better than anybody else. They are furious at the extreme violence unleashed by the group."
Samarraie also acknowledged supporting Sunni Arab self-defence groups in Baghdad.
"I have supported these groups with money, weapons and ammunition," he said, referring to groups formed in formerly insurgent-dominated neighbourhoods of the capital such as Adhamiyah, Ameriyah and Ghazaliyah.
Samarraie, in his sixties, spoke to AFP at the Um al-Qura mosque in Ghazaliyah which was recently the centre of a feud which saw the endowment body taking over control from the hardline Sunni clerics' organization, the Muslim Scholars' Association.
The association is suspected of links to several insurgent groups including Al-Qaeda.
The mosque now receives protection from Sunni fighters amid fears of a possible Al-Qaeda attack.
Samarraie believes that Iraqis have started to put an end to the violence. "Enough blood has spilled in Iraq," he said.
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