Police arrested the local leader of a government-backed Sunni Muslim militia on charges of planning the deadly bombings on Shiite pilgrims last week, Iraqi officials said Saturday.
If the Awakening Council leader is found guilty of the charges, it would affirm widespread government doubts about integrating the Sunni fighters into the nation's security forces -- despite their alliance with the U.S. against al-Qaida. It could also signal that the militia's frustration about being sidelined by Iraq's Shiite-dominated government may have finally reached a boiling point.
The arrest was announced as anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr headed back to Iran, according to two senior aides, after a two-week visit breaking nearly four years of self-exile.
The populist firebrand Shiite cleric, who leads a powerful political movement, left Iraq early Saturday, according to the two aides. One of the officials said al-Sadr was expected back soon.
Security forces were tipped off about the Awakening Council chief just hours after the Thursday blasts that killed 56 outside the holy city of Karbala, south of Baghdad, said Maj. Gen. Numan Dakhil, commander of Iraq's SWAT teams. The blasts struck crowds of pilgrims who were headed to the shrines for rituals marking the 7th century death of the Imam Hussein, who is buried there.
Dakhil said the militia leader and an assistant were arrested early Friday in Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, which U.S. and Iraqi security officials believe has become a haven for insurgents. Both men are accused of links to the Islamic Army in Iraq, a nationalist insurgent group of mostly Sunnis, many former soldiers.
Also known as Sahwa or Sons of Iraq, the Awakening Councils are made up of Sunni fighters who sided with U.S. forces against al-Qaida in a crucial turning point of the war. But many Shiite officials are deeply suspicious of their role during Iraq's darkest days of sectarian violence.
The Awakening Councils have been frustrated with the government for years, saying they risked their lives to battle al-Qaida, only to be shut out of the nation's security forces and left at the mercy of vengeful extremists.
A broad plan to absorb the Awakening Councils into security forces or other government jobs, and to give them benefits, has been stalled by Iraqi leaders who say they don't have the money to hire the 51,900 fighters.
Thursday's triple suicide bombings against the pilgrims outraged Shiite clerics who accused security forces of continually failing to foil the insurgents and protect the Iraqi people. It also prompted a Sadrist lawmaker to renew offers to reassemble al-Sadr's feared militia that is alleged to have engaged in rampant revenge killings of Sunnis for years.