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Iraqi Shi'ite leader wants U.S.-backed units curbed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s powerful Shi’ite Muslim leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, called on Friday for curbs on U.S.-backed neighbourhood patrol units, which are mainly Sunni, saying weapons should only be in the hands of the government.

Shi'ite cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council, speaks from behind a bullet-proof shield during prayers for the Muslim festival of Eid-al-Adha at his headquarters in Baghdad December 21, 2007. REUTERS/Mahmoud Raouf Mahmoud

Hakim, head of the biggest party in the Shi’ite-led government, praised the role of the patrols, known to Iraqis as “Awakening Councils”, in contributing to a sharp drop in violence but said they should only play an auxillary role.

“It is necessary that these Awakenings should be an arm of the government in chasing criminals and terrorists but not a substitute for it,” he told hundreds of Shi’ites at his Baghdad compound in a speech marking the Muslim Eid al-Adha feast.

“Weapons should only be in the hands of the government.”

The United States puts the number of the mainly Sunni Arab patrolmen at some 71,000 and credits them as an effective force in fighting Sunni al Qaeda militants.

The U.S. military, which pays most of the men around $10 each a day, acknowledges that some of them may have had links to insurgent groups but says they are screened to weed out those responsible for attacks.

Hakim said the patrols should be religiously mixed wherever possible, reflecting the discomfort of Iraqi Shi’ites leaders over the prospect of organised Sunni armed groups that could turn against them once U.S. forces withdraw.

Under U.S. pressure, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government has decided to put most of the neighbourhood patrols on its payroll by mid-2008. It says it will integrate some Awakenings members into its security forces while others will be given training for civilian jobs.

Hakim also said the neighbourhood patrols should only serve in “hot” areas where violence was still a threat.

U.S. and Iraqi officials say violence has dropped to its lowest levels in nearly two years but warn that al Qaeda is regrouping in areas like the province of Diyala north of Baghdad after they were driven out of former strongholds.