Gunmen kill Iraqi militia guards at checkpoint

BAGHDAD Tue Dec 29, 2009 10:18am EST

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Gunmen opened fire on a checkpoint near Baghdad on Tuesday, killing four members of an Iraqi government-backed militia, a militia leader and officials said.

The gunmen pulled two cars up to the checkpoint in a remote, desert area outside Garma, 30 km (20 miles) northwest of Baghdad, and shot the guards from a local militia unit, called Awakening Councils or "Sahwa" in Arabic, a militia leader said.

The men's bodies were riddled with bullets, said Awad Sami, a commander from the local guard unit.

A security source in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said an unspecified number of attackers stormed a checkpoint and killed all four guards.

The Sahwa sprang up with U.S. backing in western Iraq in 2006 as a grassroots response to al Qaeda militants. Today, they exist across much of Iraq and are paid by the Iraqi government.

Sami called for additional weaponry and logistical support from the Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad, which has had an uncomfortable relationship with the mainly Sunni militiamen.

Many of the militiamen are former insurgents themselves.

The government took over leadership of the militias, which played an important role in driving insurgents from most of Iraq and rolling back violence from its peak in 2006-07, from U.S. forces last year and has promised to find them state jobs.

Some militiamen complained the government hasn't lived up to its promises of integrating some of them into Iraq's security forces, or otherwise finding them jobs or job training.

Sami said he fears similar attacks on Sahwa guards before Iraq's general elections on March 7. "(Insurgent) activity has increased recently, mostly targeting us, and also police patrols," he said.

(Reporting by Fadhel al-Badrani; writing by Khalid al-Ansary; editing by David Stamp)

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